OTTAWA -- Penguins coach Michel Therrien spent a significant portion of his time with the NHL media yesterday telling everybody how his young team wasn't expected to still be playing this late in April. It was a predictable, even logical, first volley in the inevitable gamesmanship that boils over in every Stanley Cup playoff series. Put the pressure on the Ottawa Senators, Therrien figured. They're the Stanley Cup contenders. They're also the team with a reputation of choking in the playoffs. Let them feel as if they have everything to lose.
Smart strategy, to be sure.
Too bad it blew up on Therrien.
His message seemed to resonate with the Penguins more than it did the Senators. His team went out for Game 1 last night and played as if it wanted to prove him right.
It played as if it doesn't belong in the playoffs.
The good news is the 6-3 rout was only one game. As Badger Bob Johnson once said so famously during a Penguins Stanley Cup run a lifetime ago, holding up three stubby fingers, "You can lose three games and still win the series."
The hope for the Penguins is that they learned something from this loss. Not the loss so much, but the playoff experience. It was the first for most of them, including all of the top stars.
Boy, did it show.
"We definitely weren't ready to play at their level," Penguins veteran winger Mark Recchi said, clearly failing, at least in this game, in passing on his wisdom, honed by years of playoff experience and a couple of Stanley Cup titles, to his young teammates.
"Them playing the first game at home, you expect a storm. You have to try to quiet it down as much as you can. We didn't do a very good job of that."
Sidney Crosby is the world's best player, but he wasn't prepared for the Senators' intensity. He had a third-period goal disallowed because the officials ruled he kicked the puck into the net and he scored a meaningless power-play goal in the final minute, but he was mostly invisible.
"It's faster and more intense," Crosby said of playoff hockey.
Marc-Andre Fleury might win multiple Cup titles before his career is finished, but he couldn't have expected what the Senators threw at him at the start. It's fair to blame nerves for Fleury tripping over his goal post -- then his own skates -- and stumbling as defenseman Andrej Meszaros blew a routine slap shot by him 97 seconds into the game. Fleury, abandoned by his defense, ended up fishing five more pucks out of his net before Therrien pulled him for Jocelyn Thibault about midway through the third period, not as a sign of his displeasure with Fleury, but to put a merciful ending to the kid's evening. Although it's true what Crosby said -- "Fleury played great" -- that first goal set a lousy tone. If it didn't, the one scored by Chris Kelly five minutes later for a 2-0 Ottawa lead surely did.
"It seemed like they were always there, always coming back for more," Fleury said.
Evgeni Malkin? He did nothing. Nada. No shots.
Only Jordan Staal, among the Penguins' young kids, seemed unfazed in the playoff cauldron. He did superb work in helping the Penguins kill two lengthy five-on-three power plays. He also scored their first goal.
It was one of the few highlights.
"I think we got caught watching a little bit instead of trying to set the tone," Crosby said of the Penguins' horrendous start.
Added Recchi, "Now we know what to expect."
It will be interesting to see how the Penguins respond for Game 2 Saturday afternoon and beyond. If they really do buy into that nonsense Therrien was trying to sell the Senators and start believing that nothing is expected of them in the playoffs, that's exactly what they'll give on the ice.
The Penguins can't start believing that garbage that they have nothing to lose because they're such a young team. They matched the Senators point for point in the regular season. This series is there for them to win as much as it is for Ottawa.
One caveat, though:
If the Penguins start feeling as if they should be satisfied with their marvelous regular season, they'll have no chance. They'll also be doing themselves a serious disservice. Playoff appearances are too precious to be wasted.
"We didn't bring our best," Crosby said, agreeing with that logic. "If we threw everything at them and this was the result, we might be questioning ourselves. But that's not the case. We've got a lot more to show."
Game 2 would be a nice time to start.
The Penguins got their playoff nerves out of the way and were embarrassed in the process.
Now, it's time to play hockey.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .