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Drive to the Net: Penguins need help in a pinch

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Olli Maatta chases the Capitals' Dmitry Orlov in Game 1. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

WASHINGTON -- "We weren't perfect out there," Derick Brassard was telling me late Thursday night inside Capital One Arena. "We know we can do a lot better."

They really can.

Optimal as the outcome was for the Penguins, overcoming the absences of Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin to prevail over the Capitals, 3-2, in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff series, the more sobering overview is that the home team outshot them, 34-25, out-attempted them, 72-50, and did claim both of the evening's goals through 42 minutes.

[caption id="attachment_617247" align="aligncenter" width="440"] TAP ABOVE FOR BOXSCORE[/caption]

"We had a few breakdowns that cost us," Mike Sullivan would say from the coaches' podium. "You have to give Washington credit. They're a good team. But I think we'll learn a lot from this. We'll break down the film and see what we can take from it. I'd like to think that, if we can cut down on some of the high-quality chances, the freebies, the A-plus chances we gave them — and I think that's within our control — we can become a lot harder to play against."

They really can.

Sullivan wasn't the only one to cite the need to "break down the film," which was a little weird in that the concept seldom comes up in the Penguins' world. But he and all concerned are undoubtedly right about that because, as I was told definitively afterward, one aspect of the Capitals' strategy hit them unexpectedly hard: Barry Trotz had one or more of his forwards hanging crazy-high in the neutral zone for cross-continent breakout passes, hoping to keep the Penguins' defensemen back on their heels and, subsequently, reluctant to join their attack.

To one way of thinking, it worked. With the stretch threat established early, the Capitals then began to seize some of that abandoned ice in the neutral zone with shorter breakouts that afforded their forwards a chance to gain the Pittsburgh blue line with more steam. Most of Washington's odd-man breaks — I counted seven — took the latter route.

To another way of thinking, it didn't matter much. Because both of the Capitals' goals arose from lapses in judgment rather than any lack of adjustment.

The first came 17 seconds after the opening faceoff, so no tactic on either side could have taken root:

Take a casual glance at Evgeny Kuznetsov's breakaway goal, and the apparent culprit is Brian Dumoulin. Such is the fate of the last defenseman showing up late in any sequence like this. He might as well be guilt-whining like the sad puppy who just chewed up your new shoes.

Now, check out the same scene from another angle:

OK, so Dumoulin's too flat-footed for comfort in pinching along the left boards in the Washington zone, especially since he wasn't about to gain possession. But the Sullivan system requires Jake Guentzel to do more than just patrol the void Dumoulin leaves behind. Instead, Guentzel loses sight of Kuznetsov, who blows right by him.

Looks lousy for the defenseman. It's really on the forward.

I asked Dumoulin about it:

These can be uncomfortable questions for hockey players. Most defensemen don't want to blame forwards for failing to cover for them, and most forwards, even those cool with falling on their sword occasionally, don't want to deal with this stuff in the first place. They'd rather just score goals.

Brassard might have navigated it best, telling me, "As a unit of five, all of us, we have to have better reads."

The Capitals' second goal came about because of a defenseman's mis-read or mistake:

On this one, a centering pass to Patric Hornqvist eludes his blade, and Letang opts to go for the puck. He accidentally clips Washington's Tom Wilson whizzing by, and Wilson bumps into Hornqvist. The Capitals burst the other way, and Alexander Ovechkin rockets a top-shelf wrister.

"It's just a collision that happens, a bad-luck play," Letang would say in dismissing it.

But that's not the problem up there, and I'm positive he knows that. Because he knows that defensemen taking any such risk have to be peripherally aware of how many forwards are in front of them and, thus, if any are in a reasonable position to swing back and cover for his risk. Hornqvist was the highest of the three forwards. As soon as he can't corral that puck, a pinch is a hard red light.

Want a positive example?

Here's the Penguins' icebreaker by Hornqvist:

That's Olli Maatta over at the left hash. He's got Kuznetsov all knotted up, ensuring that the puck continues through both of them and back to the left point he'd just abandoned for his pinch. His head's up, eyes looking back to Guentzel smartly covering for him, and the play eventually works its way into the net.

But even before the shot enters, if you look one more time, Maatta and Guentzel have switched back to their respective defaults.

No practice Friday. Sleep it off, everyone.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="attachment_617312" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Capitals, Washington, April 26, 2018. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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