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Penguins must turn attention to possession vs. Senators

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, May 11, 2017 7:39 p.m
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel clears the puck from Capitals forwards Jay Beagle (83) and Marcus Johansson in the first period during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday, May 10, 2017, at Verizon Center.
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The Senators' Erik Karlsson celebrates an empty-net goal by Jean-Gabriel Pageau against the New York Rangers during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference second round during on May 9, 2017.

Too much of the Penguins’ success in the first two rounds of the playoffs hinged on the performance of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a reality acknowledged by almost every teammate following Wednesday’s series-clinching 2-0 win in Game 7 over the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.

A grateful group of skaters might find a way to repay their collective debt to the veteran netminder in the days or weeks to come. But the immediate method of signaling appreciation might involve better play in front of Fleury in the Eastern Conference finals against the Ottawa Senators.

Here are five things the Penguins can address to place less of a burden on “Flower:”

Puck pursuit

When the Penguins smothered Washington in the third period of Game 7 with pressure in all three zones, it stirred memories of their 2016 Stanley Cup run. The mixture of speed and structure left the Capitals with no room to operate, even as their desperation to create offense grew.

But that period represented the first puck pursuit breakthrough in a few weeks for the Penguins, who regularly struggled to control territory and dictate play against Washington and, to a lesser extent, against Columbus.

That struggles resulted in lopsided shot counts: The Capitals finished with a 484-318 edge in attempts and 229-162 margin in pucks on net; the Blue Jackets’ totals were 343-309 and 194-171.

“Truthfully I don’t think there was a major tactical change,” Matt Cullen said of the third period of Game 7. “I think as a group, we made an attitude adjustment and decided to go at them instead of sitting back. … For us to be successful, that’s what we need more of.”

Watch the trap

Ottawa coach Guy Boucher’s neutral-zone-clogging 1-3-1 scheme caused problems for the Penguins in three regular-season meetings, two of which the Senators won.

Scoring chances off of the rush dwindled. Speed went toward chasing dump-ins, which the Senators handled well as long as they had puck-moving dynamo Erik Karlsson out to patrol the blueline. And the more the Penguins tried to race past Ottawa before the Senators set up their forecheck, the more exposed they sometimes left themselves to counterattacks.

“They’re very confident in their game right now,” Sidney Crosby said. “They’re pretty stingy defensively, and their goaltender has been playing really well.”

The value of countering aggressive pressure with opportunistic offense is not lost on the Penguins, who followed that plan to success against Columbus and Washington. But coach Mike Sullivan’s club likely must accept that it will need a different kind of patience and opportunism in the Eastern Conference finals.

Stay out of trouble

Particularly in their second-round series, the Penguins made a habit of granting as many power-play opportunities as they garnered. They never went shorthanded in Game 1 but killed four-plus penalties in four of the next six games.

Through 12 playoff games, the Penguins had a positive penalty differential five times.

All signs point to the Penguins as a superior five-on-five squad. And when not required to use his special teams units, Sullivan finds opportunities to roll his four forward lines and three defensive pairs to test opponents’ depth.

Seize the ‘favorite’ label

As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins are all too familiar with the scrutiny and added attention bestowed upon the NHL’s perceived favorite. They wore a target on their back all season and thrived.

For better or worse, Cup-or-bust pressure on the Penguins is about to increase. Washington’s exit from the playoffs erased the one team who shared the Cup favorite narrative. Every other team left in the playoffs — Anaheim, Nashville and Ottawa — has operated in relative obscurity for most, if not all, of the season, so they are unlikely to steal the white-hot spotlight away from the Penguins.

Buy time to get healthy

Injuries happen. To ask the Penguins to avoid them is silly.

However, the Penguins possess enough depth to possibly address their health in subtle ways. Consider the lineup switches made by Sullivan in Game 7 against Washington: Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson performed admirably in place of Tom Kuhnhackl and Carl Hagelin.

Some of the Penguins, namely Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are too important to replace. But depth at forward and defensemen might allow the Penguins to buy a couple of their banged-up skaters at least one game off if necessary.

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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