By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)
If Evgeni Malkin's goal 57 seconds into the game last night didn't immediately take your mind back to the first few minutes of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston last year, then you are a lot more mentally healthy than we are. The Pens were flying at the beginning of that game but failed to bury one. The Bruins got a goal and started slowly suffocating the Pens ... Crosby took two penalties, Malkin got into a fight and Matt Cooke got ejected for boarding. The Pens doubled down on frustration in Game 2 (got blown out 6-1) and by the time they regained their composure and got to double OT in Game 3, it was too late.
Would things have been different if the Pens bury one in the opening minutes? Paul Steigerwald can say some pretty bizarre things (last night he suggested that the Pens sat Kris Letang so that Bob Bortuzzo could play in front of Mom Bortuzzo), but he was right about one thing -- the importance of the first goal against teams like Boston and L.A. If you don't score early, they can weather the storm with their goaltending and then slowly suck the life out of you. It's especially effective against the Pens, who too easily allow frustration to drag them into very dark places.
This isn't to say that the Pens deserved a different fate last year. Quite the opposite. The fact that the Pens couldn't and didn't bury one early against Boston simply means they weren't good enough. The fact that Boston went on to put the Pens in a choke hold just confirms it. But if the Pens score early, could Game 1 have gone the way of the game last night, with the goal giving the Pens a boost, the opponent taking a penalty in an attempt to slow down a superior athlete, and the Pens seizing control with a deadly power play? We'll never know, but we can assume.
More on the actual game last night, after the jump...
- We questioned Dan Bylsma's decision to start Jeff Zatkoff last night, but all's well that ends well. Zatkoff stopped 30 of 31 shots and hasn't lost a game in regulation since October 25th. Might he actually be good? Forget his season save percentage of .909. Excluding his first two starts, when he was clearly overwhelmed, his save percentage this season is .926, which is excellent. He had a couple great saves last night, and even though he moves like molasses at times, it is an oddly comforting contrast to Fleury, who gets in trouble because he moves too quickly (or shoots pucks in with his own ass). There have been stranger success stories than a guy like Jeff Zatkoff commandeering the ship and captaining the Pens to a Stanley Cup. (But not much stranger).
- Tanner Glass scored for the second straight game last night. It is only the second time in his career that he's scored in consecutive games, which is shocking BECAUSE WHO WOULD HAVE EVER THOUGHT TANNER GLASS HAD SCORED IN CONSECUTIVE GAMES BEFORE?!?! It's a very welcome contribution from a guy who hasn't contributed offensively since he's been here. We're not holding our breath that he's turned a corner (he was out-Corsi'd 19-7 at 5-on-5 last night), but goals from the 3rd and 4th lines are what the Pens need. If it comes from Tanner Glass and not some guy brought in at the trade deadline, all the better.
- So far, the rotation at Sid's RW leaves a lot to be desired. Sid doesn't need a big (expensive) upgrade because he and Kunitz can provide enough scoring, but the Glass, Gibbons rotation at RW is absolutely going to drag down the 5-on-5 productivity of that line, perhaps significantly. We like Gibbons, but it's unrealistic to expect him to perform well in the playoffs. He's tiny and too easily knocked off the puck. We saw it with Hossa and Dupuis, and we see it now with how James Neal compliments Evgeni Malkin: Crosby and Malkin are most effective when they have wingers who can "backcheck" while still in the offensive zone. That is, wingers who are fast enough and strong enough to prevent the other team from exiting the zone even when the other team has clear possession of the puck. Puck hounds, you could say. Last night, there were many times where as soon as the Kings had the puck on their blades behind their own net, it was coming directly out of the zone. Sid doesn't need a finisher like Mike Cammalleri. He needs a guy to prevent that puck from getting out cleanly. A guy like (sad face) Pascal Dupuis.
- Has anyone recovered yet from meeting Penny Kunitz? We haven't.
Bottom line: that's a great win over an extremely difficult opponent. The check engine light may be blinking, but the truck keeps plowing full speed ahead. LGP.