“Random,” the term data maven Nate Silver used to describe hockey results, certainly fit the bill for Wednesday’s playoff opener between the Penguins and New York Rangers.
Who could foresee the Rangers, the Eastern Conference’s worst playoff-qualifying possession team, not only establishing a healthy edge in shot attempts but sustaining it over the Penguins, the conference’s best group of puck possessors?
And who could guess that goalie Jeff Zatkoff, basically a practice goalie the past two months, would stand on his head while the Penguins worked out their troubles in the first and second periods? Zatkoff was 3-8 with a 4.26 goals against average and .871 save percentage in parts of four postseasons with Manchester and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
Coach Mike Sullivan delved into the anomaly of the Penguins’ possession woes on a couple occasions after the win.
“I don’t think we had the puck as much tonight as we’ve been accustomed to,” Sullivan said. “Especially early in the game. I don’t know if it was just home-team jitters or what, but the first part of the game, I thought we weren’t playing with the same conviction. I thought we settled in. But it took us probably 10 or 12 minutes of that first period to settle into the game. I thought our guys did a pretty good job as far as making the right decisions in the critical areas of the rink.”
Later, he returned to the topic.
“We talked to our guys about settling down and just playing the game the way that we’ve played it for the last three months,” Sullivan said. “Try to keep our shifts short and just simplify the game out there. Take a little bit of the thinking out of it and just get our feet moving, get involved physically. Sometimes your adrenaline starts to flow, and you can settle into games. … I thought early in the game, they were shooting the puck from everywhere. When that happens, sometimes it’s tough to grab ahold of the rebound, because it’s ripping around the wall or it’s not laying in areas. That might’ve had something to do with it on a couple of shifts there early in the game.”
It certainly helped the Penguins that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault opted to give defenseman Dan Girardi 17 minutes and 17 seconds of ice time. Once a cornerstone of a smothering Rangers defense, Girardi seems to have become the whipping boy of the team’s fanbase this season. That won’t change after tonight’s game. On the Penguins’ first goal, Girardi stood idly by as Conor Sheary ran down a Patric Hornqvist dump-in. On their second goal, Hornqvist blocked a Girardi shot and sent Sidney Crosby off on a breakaway.
Girardi was one of two Rangers with sub-50 percent possession numbers in five-on-five play. The other: Tanner Glass.
Plenty of Penguins finished below the 50 percent mark.
Sullivan’s explanation for using seven defensemen: “It was Olli’s first game back in a while. We wanted to make sure we managed his minutes the right way to we could be effective. It gives more options as far as on the back end for Jacques (Martin), when he’s looking for certain matchups. We have some guys that we use on the power play. … It gave me some flexibility up front as far as moving other guys in with that front line.”