Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the Ottawa Senators during the second period in Game One of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 13, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- They watched film. They simulated the Senators' trap during practice.
But until you see it in person, see how consistently and religiously the Senators execute, it's truly impossible to visualize.
The Penguins got that in Game 1.
"Experiencing it is something different," Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said after practice Sunday.
If there was any doubt what the reigning champs are up against, it has been completely removed now. And while we'll make a big deal out of the trap and the system and the Senators' attention to detail, it's the execution that is most impressive. Right now, Ottawa is dialed in as much as any team left in the playoffs. The Senators truly understand their identity, how they need to play to be successful and they appear to be a group that has a genuine grasp of the opportunity that is in front of them -- an opportunity they are clinging to tightly so it doesn't slip away.
When one NHL team executive was asked about the Senators' trap, that's where he focused his attention -- the effort of the players.
"The reason Ottawa is where they are is because they've consistently outworked their opponent," the executive said. "They outworked Pittsburgh. ... It's going to come down to blue-collar work ethic, and execution. Who sweats the most."
That work ethic has rarely been a problem for a Mike Sullivan group. The Penguins' coach had them out for another full practice Sunday to try and find solutions to a forgettable Game 1, starting practice with a drill that simulated a jammed-up neutral zone with players weaving in and out with pucks.
An area of focus for the Penguins after the Game 1 loss was shot selection. Sullivan wants the Penguins to be more aggressive with their shooting, rather than trying to find the perfect shot.
During a Sunday morning film session, the Penguins' coaches showed a number of situations where they felt there was an opportunity to get a shot on goal, and it didn't happen.
This isn't a new problem for the Penguins. The Senators controlled 59 percent of the even-strength shot attempts in Game 1. The Penguins have controlled just 42 percent of the even-strength shot attempts against opponents this postseason, the only surviving team under 50 percent. The loss of Kris Letang and Trevor Daley on that defense is a big part of it, but Sullivan also says he thinks his team could be shooting more.
"This is something that's crept into our game over the last few weeks and I think we've got to simplify our game a little bit and just look for opportunities to put more pucks at the net," Sullivan said. "I've always been a believer that nothing breaks coverage down better than a shot on goal. It forces decision-making. If there's hesitation, or sometimes there's duplication of jobs, that's when opportunity presents itself."
That's one fix. The second is better execution against the 1-3-1 trap. The executive said he saw an opportunity to use both defensemen more effectively to break down the trap.
"Once they all commit to one side ... the weak side D is wide open," he said. "They just need to go D to D. To me, once you start to one side, the D to D [pass] is there. You'll see it [in Game 2]. Mike Sullivan is a lot smarter than I am."
A Western Conference coach said he thought Game 1 was a continuation of sloppy play in the neutral zone for the Penguins that existed in every game against the Capitals except Game 7.
"If they continue to try and carry pucks through the neutral zone, Ottawa is going to make it very difficult for them," he said. "Pittsburgh has to commit to putting pucks deep ... they need to keep the dumps into the strong corner and slash two forwards on the puck. It's difficult for the back defenseman to go back to pucks with two forwards on top of him."
He agreed that the D-to-D passes would help change the angle of attack, and thought high flip passes beyond the Senators 1-3-1 setup, pursued aggressively by the Penguins' fast skaters, would be an effective strategy.
"When the puck is flipped, it freezes everyone because they can't get a comfortable sense of the puck with it high and bouncing when it lands," he said.
He pointed to the winning goal scored by Nathan Horton against Guy Boucher's Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals as the kind of play that effectively found the soft spots inside the 1-3-1.
On that play, Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference patiently skated the puck up the center of the ice. David Krejci worked up speed through the neutral zone, and Ference hit him with a pass just as he approached the left faceoff dot before entering the offensive zone, a potential soft spot area. Krejci took the puck wide as Horton drove the net, feeding him a pass right on the doorstep for a tap-in goal.
Plays like that won't always be there and the key for the Penguins will be resisting frustration when they have to circle back and try again.
"Ultimately, Pittsburgh has to be disciplined and patient," the Western Conference coach said. "If not, much like [Game 1], they won't get much going and their offense will struggle and allow Ottawa to generate their dangerous transition game."