2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round Series Recap
Eastern Conference First Round, Game 1 - Pittsburgh 3, Tampa Bay 0 – Pittsburgh leads series, 1-0
The beauty of the NHL postseason is found in many ways and on many levels. One of the virtues of this sport is that goaltenders can compensate for other weaknesses, bringing drama and brilliance to battles that might appear to be less than compelling to the casual observer. How fitting it was, then, that on a night when Pittsburgh’s new hockey arena hosted its first playoff game, a hero of the Penguins’ championship run at the franchise’s former home was the man who stepped into the spotlight.
The scene was set in the Steel City: CONSOL Energy Center was making its playoff debut as Pittsburgh’s new hockey destination, but the stars who essentially built that arena – Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – were not wearing Pens’ jerseys. Crosby watched from a distance in civilian attire while Malkin also wore normal shoes and not the skates he expects to put on in springtime. For the first time since 2001, the Penguins played a playoff game without either Crosby or Malkin on the ice. For the team that owned the Eastern Conference in 2008 and 2009 and remained very much a factor in the 2010 quest for the Cup, this development was disorienting and disjointing.
As the Penguins encountered the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of a first-round series, they knew that they’d have to win with nothing but elbow grease and hard work… oh, and great goaltending, too. Pittsburgh knew it needed to hang its hat on defense in this series, while Crosby and Malkin remain on the shelf. Without something special on the defensive side of the divide, the Pens were fully aware of their deficits and deficiencies against a talented lineup of lethal Lightning scorers such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos.
Sure enough, Pittsburgh produced something special. More specifically, Marc-Andre Fleury delivered the goods for his teammates.
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Fleury stood tall in the saddle in 2009, as Pittsburgh – then at the old “Igloo” formally known as Mellon Arena – won its most recent Stanley Cup title. In his first playoff game at CONSOL Energy Center, Fleury acted as though he was every bit as comfortable between the pipes. After all, the building might change, but the fundamentals of netminding remain the same. Fleury was able to stop each and every one of Tampa Bay’s 32 shots, and more instructively, he kept the game scoreless through two periods, enabling the defense-first Pens to hit paydirt in the third.
Fleury was the hero, but a flurry of action in 18 seconds carried Pittsburgh on the scoreboard. Alexei Kovalev broke the scoreless deadlock at 6:05 of the third with a one-timer off a feed from James Neal. Then, at 6:23 – before the Pittsburgh crowd could settle down – Arron Asham found the back of the net to blow the roof off the Pens’ new home. An empty-netter by Chris Kunitz rounded out the scoring at 19:18, but when those two goals entered the scoresheet in the early stages of the third period, Marc-Andre Fleury knew that he had carried his team past its point of vulnerability. If Tampa Bay doesn’t crack the code in Game 2, Pittsburgh’s old playoff confidence will carry over to its new building… and its new method of winning games without the services of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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