Wanted: More bodies at net for Penguins

You can break down the Penguins’ system and faceoff plays and defensive schemes all day, but there is a simple truth that they and most teams share.

To score, it helps to set up shop around the other team’s net. Get people and shots there with regularity.

That’s particularly true against elite goaltenders, such as Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

The Penguins didn’t sustain that part of their game at times Friday night, and that was one reason they lost, 3-2, in overtime in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference second-round playoff series.

“He’s a good goalie,” said winger James Neal, who had one of the Penguins’ two goals. “You have to have traffic in front of him. You’ve got to be putting pucks there and going there.”

Lundqvist made 34 saves in the victory.

The Penguins had a flat first period but bounced back with a strong second, including more of a presence around Lundqvist.

“The first 10 minutes of the game, we passed up three, four shot opportunities, getting the puck [to the net],” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

“In the second period, we did have that — we did have the type of offensive zone time and pucks to the net, bodies there that we’re looking for.”

The Penguins’ first goal, though, came off a rush. Beau Bennett carried the puck up the ice and, once over the blue line, left a drop pass for Lee Stempniak, who scored on a backhand shot to pull the Penguins to 2-1 at 7:15 of the second.

Their second goal came with a player at the net, but it almost backfired.

Evgeni Malkin was near the left post when Neal took a shot. The puck popped up off Lundqvist, then hit the back of his leg as it came down and rolled over the goal line.

The play was reviewed to see if Malkin had scored with a high stick. While Malkin’s stick was higher than the crossbar, he did not touch the puck. Malkin also appeared to impede Lundqvist’s arm with his stick. That might have been termed goaltender interference, but there was no penalty called and it is not a reviewable situation.

But at least the Penguins had a player at the net.

Lundqvist has noticed that the Penguins don’t just send physical players to camp out in front of the net, but, as with Malkin, have skill players there who can deftly get deflections or pounce on rebounds, as well as set screens.

“They’re a team that likes to make plays,” Lundqvist said. “They’re not a team that’s going to always be in front of you, hack and whack. They have a couple guys that like to do that, but, for the most part, they’re going to make some big plays.

“So, you just have to make sure you’re making big reads and try to be aware of guys without the puck. They go across a lot. In the second period, they made some big plays.”

Lundqvist, 32, won the Vezina as the NHL’s top goaltender two years ago and was a finalist a year ago. But the Penguins can beat him.

He was 2-1-1 against the Penguins in the regular season with what for him was a subpar save percentage of .898. Lundqvist’s career record in the regular season against the Penguins is 25-19-7, and it’s his most losses against any team.

The only other time Lundqvist has faced the Penguins in the playoffs, the Rangers lost in five games in the second round in 2008. Lundqvist had a 29-save shutout in his only win in that series but gave up 14 goals in the four losses.

Lundqvist’s teammates key on shoring things up around him.

“You’ve got to credit them a bit, too,” Stempniak said of the Rangers. “They block a lot of shots. They do a good job tracking back, and it seems like when you slow down to look for a play or something, there’s a lot of guys in the [shooting] lanes.

“So I think [the answer is] just trying to funnel more pucks to the net, shoot from all angles. Let’s not pass up shots.”

New York blocked 15 shots, including four by defenseman Dan Girardi, and kept the Penguins on the perimeter for stretches.

“Any team’s going to try to box you out and not let you get to the net,” Neal said. “That’s where the goals are, around the net. Nothing different than any other team trying to box you out.

“We still need to do a better job to get to the net and get traffic in front of [Lundqvist].”

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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