GAME 1: BRUINS 3, PENS 0
PITTSBURGH -- The Bruins will gladly thank Sidney Crosby for whatever instinct compelled him and his teammates to muck it up with the Black and Gold in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
It appeared the Penguins were attempting to make some warped statement that they could be just as nasty and physically intimidating as a team that has “Big” and “Bad” in their moniker.
Instead of disrupting the Bruins, it energized them.
The first 60 minutes of Stanley Cup Playoff nastiness in this series saw Matt Cooke get tossed for a reckless hit from behind, Evgeni Malkin and Patrice Bergeron drop the gloves in a rare NHL superstar fight, and Zdeno Chara get into a shouting match with Crosby on two separate occasions.
Beneath all of the bluster and penalty minutes, the Bruins won a tidy 3-0 decision over the high-powered Penguins and dealt Pittsburgh their first shutout loss in more than a calendar year, dating back to a 1-0 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 1, 2012.
The Bruins likely left the Pens barn last night wondering what Pittsburgh was smoking to attempt to carry out a game plan tailor-made for the Black and Gold.
While it’s true the Penguins were able to get four power play chances out of all the bad hockey behavior, Crosby of all people seemed to be taken completely out of his game. He missed on a couple of early chances, and was otherwise neutralized by Bergeron, who was concentrated fully on shutting down Crosby's. Pittsburgh's center, who many consider to be the face of the NHL, was on the ice for both of David Krejci’s goals, lost 6-of-17 draws with many of them coming against No. 37 and had little impact on the game before going after Tuukka Rask, of all people, at the end of the second period as the Bruins goaltender skated off the ice.
That little act of hockey bravery caught the ire of Chara, and Pittsburgh’s captain backed away from the 6-foot-9 behemoth until refs and other players stood between them. At that point, Crosby started swearing menacingly while looking up at the meanest, toughest player in the NHL -- and looked pretty weak while doing it.
That was happening simultaneously as the fight broke out between Malkin and Bergeron, who were throwing haymakers at each other.
Even though Crosby played one of his worst playoff games ever, he saved his ultimate weak sauce move for the postgame when he whined about the officiating, even though it was Pittsburgh that was clearly trying to set a punishing physical tone in the game.
“They're letting a lot go out there, and the more it gets like that, the more it’s going to escalate," Crosby said. "You can only control and channel that stuff so much. You keep letting guys do that stuff, you’re just going to push the envelope. That’s something we obviously want to stay away from, but it’s kind of a natural thing when it gets like that.
"It was just hard to gauge. Interference calls where you barely catch a guy, and then you’re allowing punches to the head. Are we going to play, or are we going to call those little things once in a while? It’s hard to get a temperature on the game when that stuff is going on. Then you let a few of those go and everything starts getting out of hand. We’ve just got to focus on playing."
At least Crosby got his last sentence correctly, because it’s hard to comprehend the rest. Did he think his Penguins team was the one being bullied? It was Cooke who served the dirtiest hit of the night, and it was Malkin that began throwing punches at the head of Bergeron, who's had four concussions and counting in his NHL career. Sure, the Bruins fought back at every turn, but very few times were they the instigator in any of the events of Game 1.
That’s what made Pittsburgh's approach so surprising, because it completely took them out of their puck possession game that had them being compared to the 1980’s Edmonton Oilers.
Pittsburgh outhit Boston by a 34-19 margin through the game, starting on one of the very shifts of the game when Kris Letang rocked Brad Marchand with a neutral zone hit. After that, the Penguins continued to push the envelope physically against the Bruins.
James Neal rocked Milan Lucic with a hit behind the Boston net, and Pascal Dupuis caught Zdeno Chara with an errant high stick very early in the first period.
In doing so the Penguins gratuitously poked the bear, and enraged an opponent that always plays a better brand of hockey when angry.
Call it “temporary playoff insanity” if you will, but it was very reminiscent of when the Penguins lost their composure in the first round against the Flyers last season. Fights and cheap shots completely took Pittsburgh out of their game plan, and ultimately allowed the Flyers to handle them in the series.
“The first round [of the playoffs] is always crazy, the second round is a grind, and the third round is always very emotional because you’ve worked so hard in the first two,” said Andrew Ference. “Getting a chance to play for the Cup is right there, so emotions run pretty high and tensions are pretty tight.
“It’s not surprising to see guys step out of their usual selves, go the extra mile, get emotional and scrap for a little more emotion and for every little inch. That stuff is really par for the course at this time of year.”
Par for the course, yes. But smart? Not in the Pens' case in Game 1.
Losing Cooke just minutes into the second period was a stupid play that hurt Pittsburgh’s offensive depth that had been a strength for them in their playoff run. Losing Evgeni Malkin to a senseless fight with Patrice Bergeron at the end of the second period took their most effective offensive player off a key PP to start the third period.
Penguins missteps helped ensure that they wouldn’t make a comeback down 1-0 after two periods.
Not even Crosby could bail them out. In fact, he may have been most affected by the emotional intensity of Game 1. He was so preoccupied with antics and referee arguments that his game was out of sorts. Sid the Kid was so frustrated about being owned by Bergeron that he finally went to the penalty box for slashing at Tyler Seguin’s ankles in a fit of pique in the third period. Like with Rask at the end of the second period, Crosby found somebody he felt like he could pick on in Seguin.
Clearly the Bruins didn’t care to pound their chests or chastise the Penguins in a victorious dressing room, but instead wanted to dwell on David Krejci’s continued playoff dominance with a two-goal performance and a shutdown defensive effort against a team that entered the game averaging 4.27 goals per game in the playoffs.
“I didn't see everything happen except that there was a fight. I saw Sidney push our goaltender as he's skating off. This is playoff hockey. Those things are going to happen,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “You don't whine or complain about it, you just deal with it. What we had to deal with tonight was winning a hockey game.
“That's all that matters . . . whichever way we took at the end of the night, that's all that matters.”
It does matter a little bit, of course. As long as Pittsburgh is trying their wrongheaded "Big Bad Penguins" act in the playoffs, they’re going be in big trouble against a rough and ready Bruins club.