COMMENTARY | Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was on to something when he let slip that the Ottawa Senators, a team which has missed the postseason just twice since the 2005 NHL lockout, were a preferable opponent to the New York Islanders, who hadn't made the playoffs since 2007 but took the Penguins to overtime in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"I think [the Senators are] a better matchup for us than the Islanders were," Orpik told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review following Tuesday's 4-1 win in Game 1. "Everyone kept alluding to how bad we were playing against them and the mistakes we were making. I think they, for whatever reason, just presented a tough matchup."
The Penguins know something about matchup problems. The Philadelphia Flyers were the only team to finish with a winning record against the Penguins in the 2011-12 season, and they tortured the Pens in the first round with their transition offense and power play. Philly became Cup favorites after dismantling the Penguins, but were dropped in just five games in the second round by a very different New Jersey Devils squad.
The Islanders gave Pittsburgh a scare with a turnover-producing neutral zone trap and devastating speed on the wings, leading many to rethink their assessment of the Pens as overwhelming favorites to come out of the East.
After Game 1 in the Semifinals round, the Senators are looking outmatched by the Penguins. Pittsburgh's 4-1 win on Tuesday was just the third time in 2013 that Craig Anderson has allowed more than three goals (Pittsburgh is responsible for two of those games), and Tomas Vokoun continued his impressive playoff return by turning aside 35 of 36 shots.
Of course, the Penguins had a similarly hot start against the Isles, winning Game 1 of the Quarterfinals by a 5-0 final. Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean is the prohibitive Jack Adams Award favorite this season for steering the injury-addled Senators to a playoff berth. One imagines he'll adjust his game plan to address the Pens' successes in Game 1, much like the Islanders did in winning Game 2 of the ECQF by a 4-3 final.
As he did starting in Games 3 and 4 of the first round, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will have to match wits with his opponent.
"There is a physicality in both teams that's going to be there," Bylsma said. "I heard them talk about wanting to be more physical going to the net. I'm just looking at our team and the way we came out."
New York's successful adjustments were half strategy, half personnel. They moved to a neutral-zone trap after Game 1 to turn Pittsburgh's favored stretch pass into turnovers, but their forwards had the wheels to beat the Pens in transition. That chess match turned what looked like an eventual sweep into a series that nearly went the distance.
Ottawa is sure to update their strategies in Game 2 as well.
"I thought, at the nets, [the Penguins] were hard," MacLean said. "They were harder at our net, they were harder than us at their net, and that's something that we have to get better at and we will get better at."
Physicality was a point of note entering this series. Ottawa has a wealth of bruisers in its line-up, with 19 skaters listed at 6'1" or taller and three of the top 30 hitters in the league during the regular season. The Senators spoke of being more physical in Game 2 -- the Pens outhit them 40-26 in Game 1 -- and being more aggressive in front of the nets.
New York's move towards a speedy transition played on a weakness in the Penguins lineup, one that wasn't addressed until Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale were put back into the starting lineup to provide speed on the wings. While Ottawa can always adjust its systems and strategies, a move towards more physicality may not tilt the series the way New York did with its skating.
Pittsburgh didn't get faster at the trade deadline, but they got a whole hell of a lot meaner.
Three of GM Ray Shero's four deadline moves were aimed at adding size and grit to the lineup. Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla are scorers, but they're also big bodies who've shown tendencies towards churlishness. Iginla will pick his spots and the occasional fight, and Morrow can be a menace in opposing goalies' blue paint. Defenseman and Frightening Monster Douglas Murray has also made Pittsburgh's own blue paint a much tougher place to set up shop.
Those additions have given the Pens sandpaper, but the hitter's mentality isn't limited to the newcomers.
"[The Senators] have guys that can wear on you," Pens defenseman Matt Niskanen said Wednesday. "They try to have that physical factor to their game, as do we. A lot of what playoff hockey is is imposing your will on the other team and trying to create some space for yourself.
"That's a focus for us. If you want to have success in the series we're going to have to match their physicality."
It's only been one game for the Pens, but they look to match up well against the Senators' physical game plan. And, unlike the Islanders, the Senators aren't going to outrun Pittsburgh's backcheck. They simply don't have the personnel to play that game.
Pittsburgh managed to escape the Islanders' speed in the first round. Now that the Pens are the fastest team left standing in the East (New York and Boston are similarly big and physical to the Senators), they may not get beat on personnel matchups again.
Ottawa is too good not to make the series more difficult moving forward. But don't expect them to scare the Penguins with a brand of hockey they won't be able to handle. The Penguins were built for this series.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and is an Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers and has attended Penguins home games with credentials.
All unattributed quotes courtesy Jason Seidling & Pittsburgh Penguins
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