BY WILL GRAVES
Budding New York Islanders star John Tavares anticipated the open space he found so easily during the regular season to be whittled away by the Pittsburgh Penguins in their opening-round playoff series.
He never thought it would disappear entirely.
The Penguins held the NHL’s third-leading goal scorer without a shot during their remarkably easy 5-0 victory in Game 1 on Wednesday, the first time all year Tavares failed to get at least one puck on the net.
Nobody ever said this whole Quest for the Cup thing would be easy, kid.
“It’s part of the playoffs to be physical on me,” Tavares said. “Sometimes that gets you going, gets the blood going, gets you a little (ticked) off.”
Harassed at every turn and dropped on his backside more than once, Tavares skated through 17:03 of fruitless ice time against a team intent on showing it’s serious about its defense after getting embarrassed in a first-round loss to Philadelphia a year ago.
Marc-Andre Fleury turned aside all 26 shots he faced for his sixth career playoff shutout and the Penguins continued to dominate the Islanders at home. Pittsburgh has allowed just one goal to the Islanders in the last 10 periods played at Consol Energy Center, outscoring the Islanders 14-1 over that span.
Keep it going for another three periods in Game 2 on Friday and the Penguins will have a commanding 2-0 lead. Pittsburgh hasn’t lost a series when it won the first two games since 2000 against Philadelphia.
Not that the Penguins are getting ahead of themselves. Coach Dan Bylsma has ordered his players to wear T-shirts with the number “4” on them to serve as a reminder on how many victories it takes to advance to the next round. As dominant as Pittsburgh looked in the opener even with captain Sidney Crosby sidelined with a broken jaw, it was just one game.
“It was a great start, but it’s just a start,” forward Brenden Morrow said.
One that seemed to check off all the things the Penguins need to do over the next two months if they want to bookend the Cup they won in 2009.
Pittsburgh’s third line of Morrow, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke shut down New York’s top line of Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes. The power play scored twice. Pascal Dupuis – who normally flanks Crosby – punched in a couple of rebounds. Fleury showed no ill effects of last year’s meltdown against the Flyers. Newly acquired Jarome Iginla dished out two assists and cracked New York goaltender Evgeni Nabokov’s mask with a heavy slap shot from the point in the first period that left Nabokov temporarily dazed.
It was as complete a performance as the Penguins could have expected with their best player watching from the press box. Crosby’s return remains uncertain, and in a way his absence has only brought Pittsburgh’s vastly improved defense into focus.
The Flyers lit the Penguins up for 30 goals in six games last spring, many of them highlight-worthy. It led to a needed change in mindset for the Penguins, who had grown overly reliant on their breathtaking playmaking at the expense of playing responsibly on the other end of the ice.
The unnecessary risks Pittsburgh took to generate scoring opportunities have vanished. The forwards are backchecking and the defensemen have become more proficient at winning the little battles in front of the net.
The addition of hulking Douglas Murray at the trade deadline helped. So did the acquisition of Morrow, who took turns shadowing Tavares with Cooke.
“They’re going to play tough and physical and they can grind down a team on the forecheck,” Bylsma said. “It makes for a gritty, tough group.”
That image that doesn’t exactly fit with the one the Penguins have projected during the Crosby Era.
Any concerns Pittsburgh was too soft to make a run at the Cup were dispelled in the opener when defenseman Kris Letang and Tavares found themselves sprinting toward a puck behind the Penguins’ net.
Letang is one of the fastest players in the league. Yet rather than outsprint Tavares to the puck, he hesitated just a second and knocked Tavares on the ground before going on his way. It didn’t matter that Letang turned it over before he got to center ice. The message had been sent.
“Sacrifices have to be made,” Tavares said. “Winning isn’t easy. It’s going to hurt a little bit. You’re going to have to battle through a lot of things and we have to make sure we establish our game a little bit more, play a little quicker and not get caught up in stuff that’s going on.”
Not if the Islanders want to extend their first playoff appearance since 2007 beyond four games. Yet rather than panic or punish his players for a subpar performance, New York coach Jack Capuano kept things loose on Thursday. The team’s short 45-minute skate was short on tactics and long on laughter.
“You can see the emotion that they had today, the fun they had today,” Capuano said. “You have to enjoy this ride. There’s going to be surges, there’s going to be momentum (switches). You need to make sure that the guys stay relaxed.”