The Penguins may not have played their best hockey yet, but they’re making significant progress toward that end.
When these playoffs began the Pens were a team that hadn’t been out of the first round since 2010.
And when this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal with the Ottawa Senators commenced the Pens were a team that hadn’t taken a two-games-to-none lead in a
series since the 2009 Eastern Conference final.
Their 4-3, Game 2 triumph over Ottawa fell short of perfect.
Hideous turnovers by Chris Kunitz and then Kris Letang forced Tomas Vokoun to be at his absolute best on a couple of occasions against breakaways surrendered while the Pens were trying to protect a 4-2, second-period lead.
And the door had been opened for the first Senators goal via a hooking penalty taken by Evgeni Malkin in the offensive zone (Game 2’s “Why Geno?” moment).
But there was a whole lot more to like, a whole lot more that was reminiscent of the juggernaut Penguins from the second half of the regular season.
They started fast and had a chance to bury the Senators early.
They flashed a little star power (Sidney Crosby’s hat trick) and in the process chased Craig Anderson from the Ottawa net.
They made sure special teams were part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
And most significantly they shut the door in the third after the Senators had closed to within 4-3 just 2:01 into the final 20 minutes.
After their lead had been sliced to one the Penguins put on a clinic the rest of the way.
Operation Lock Down commenced after Brooks Oprik went off for boarding at 3:13 with a penalty kill that yielded just one shot on Vokoun.
After that the Pens back-checked when they had to, got pucks deep, cycled when they could and closed off the E-ZPass lane to Vokoun’s crease.
Ottawa managed four shots after the Orpik penalty expired.
And there’s value in all of that beyond the two-games-to-none advantage the Pens’ third-period execution produced.
Recall Pascal Dupuis’ assessment as to why beating the Islanders and finally getting out of the first round for a change was such a big deal: “Sometimes you get a
goal or two against and what kind of memories come to your mind? It’s the last few years, you know? It’s like ‘here we go again.’ It’s great that we stuck with it.”
This is greater still for a Penguins team that still aspires to be great.
Consider Jarome Iginla’s critique of the way the Penguins closed out Game 2: “I thought we played well. I thought we had some shifts down in their end and were able to
kill a lot of the last 10 minutes down there with zone time and were able to keep the pucks to the outside.
“‘Voky’ had to make some big saves for sure but I thought overall it was a good team effort. We put a lot of pressure on them. We had a lot of scoring chances. I thought
we limited (Ottawa’s).
“Our last two games were better for us. We played a more complete game. We had some pressure. We had that zone time. We were able to draw penalties and our penalty-kill was good.”
Added Matt Niskanen regarding the way the Pens performed for the majority of Game 2’s final period: “That’s how we want to play with the lead. That’s something you strive for, a smothering fore-check and guys back-tracking and having good gaps, playing in their end as much as possible.
“We know we can do it. Everybody was doing a god job of being in the right spots and being responsible. Your hockey instincts just take over. You don’t need to take a bad-angle shot and just give them a free breakout. Guys did a good job of that tonight.”
A two-games-to-none lead guarantees nothing.
But in building it the Penguins have earned a great deal more positive re-enforcement upon which to draw.
The kind they hadn’t had at their disposal in quite a while.