The Penguins' Matt Cooke (24) collides with Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson (65) in the first period Tuesday night of Game 1.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A day after the Penguins opened their second-round playoff series against Ottawa with a 4-1 win, center Joe Vitale could tell this was a different opponent from the team they beat in the first round, the New York Islanders.
Actually, Vitale could feel the difference.
"My body's a little more sore today than last time," Vitale said Wednesday after he and most others who played in Game 1 sat out an optional practice.
Vitale got pummeled several times in Game 1, at least a couple of times by rugged Senators forward Chris Neil.
"You give a few; you take a few," Vitale said. "That's just part of the game. I definitely took a little more than I gave [in Game 1]. Hopefully, it will be different come Friday [in Game 2]."
Perhaps Vitale's personal hit sheet will be more balanced, but he got his licks in Tuesday, registering three hits, and the Penguins came out ahead in that category. They finished with 40 hits to Ottawa's 26. Wingers Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke led with five each for the Penguins. Neil had that many for Ottawa.
Coach Dan Bylsma downplayed those numbers. He said the Penguins keep their own hits statistics. He did not say how many his team had on the internal ledgers but said his players did a better job of dishing out hits in the first period than later in the game.
The series is not likely to turn into some sort of hockey version of flag football, so the Penguins will need to keep hitting.
"They've got some big bodies. They go out and bang and crash," said Penguins center Brandon Sutter, who, along with center Evgeni Malkin, was one of two Penguins who did not register a hit in Game 1.
"But I think we did a good job of doing that, too. We expect a physical series. At the same time, they're a team that can skate and move the puck well."
The Penguins have those players, too. So did the Islanders, but the physical play is what could very well make this series different.
"They play a physical game," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said of the Senators. "They've got guys that can wear on you physically. They try to have that physical factor in their game -- as do we."
Ottawa finished the regular season ranked sixth in the NHL with 1,307 hits, or 27.2 per game, with Neil ranked No. 2 individually with 206. The Penguins were ninth with 1,229 hits, or 25.6 per game, with no players in the top 20.
It's not all about thundering hits, although those can sometimes swing momentum or knock a team off of its game mentally. A lot of times, simply finishing a check or bumping someone off of the puck can have advantageous results, such as creating turnovers or scoring chances.
"That's a lot of what playoff hockey is, is imposing your will on the other team," Niskanen said. "You're trying to create some space for yourself, get them to turn pucks over on the forecheck, things like that, create ice for yourself and create chances.
"That's going to be a factor moving forward in the series."
In the first round, the Penguins averaged 29.8 hits in a six-game series win against the Islanders, who averaged 33 a game and had more hits in five of six games. But Ottawa is more punishing than New York.
"Way more physical [Tuesday] night [than the Islanders series]," Vitale said. "We kind of knew that coming in. Some bigger bodies on the other end, especially their fourth line with Neil. A lot more big hits."
While the Penguins didn't need to be more physical to beat the Islanders, at least as measured by hits, they look at Ottawa differently.
"They have big defensemen and forwards that can really throw their weight around," Niskanen said. "You've got to play that way if you want to have success in the postseason. That's been our game plan -- get in on forechecks and make a dent in 'em. Make them hard minutes for their defensemen and their top guys.
"That will be a focus for us. If we want to have success in the series, we're going to have to match their physicality."