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Pens’ challenge vs. Montreal: Don’t beat themselves in the bubble

Game on.

Everybody’s dress rehearsal has been completed.

The next time pucks drop in Edmonton and Toronto it’ll be about seeding or survival.

Hockey’s resumption is actually happening, a concept Bryan Rust admittedly didn’t begin to completely appreciate until the Penguins departed for their bubble, until wheels down in Canada.

“When we got on the plane and we got here we realized this thing’s a go and we’re here to play for the Stanley Cup,” Rust acknowledged via Zoom from Toronto.

It’s playoff hockey in August.

The way to play it into September and beyond is to embrace it the way playoff hockey in April and May should always be embraced.

Consider AT&T SportsNet analyst Bob Errey’s declaration during the Pens’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Flyers on Tuesday:

“The teams that are strong structurally, sound defensively and disciplined with their puck management are going to be successful.”

It plays out that way much more often than not in a typical postseason.

Structure, defense and discipline figure to be even more critical in games played on August ice.

Nobody complained after the Flyers game.

Sidney Crosby and Jason Zucker even gave the ice conditions passing grades.

But the suspicion here is that was by design, either in an effort not to pile on those who have worked so hard to get these games staged as best they can amid unprecedented circumstances, or as a reflection of the Pens’ determination not to be concerned about what they can’t control.

It is what it is and it will be what it will be, which won’t be February ice in Edmonton.

Especially when three games are being played on the same surface in one day.

The Pens-Canadiens best-of-five series opener on Saturday night in Toronto will be the third of three games staged at the Maple Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena.

That’ll make keeping it simple even more essential, against Montreal and beyond.

Goals are going to be tough to come by, as they inevitably are in the playoffs, and for the most part they aren’t going to be scored in spectacular fashion.

That’ll put even more of an onus on the Pens not to push the envelope, not to take chances, not to become the type of high-risk team Mike Sullivan has preached about not being ever since he started coaching the team.

For the Penguins, this is a familiar theme.

Heading into a series they ought to sweep, it’s worth repeating.

In the offensive end, it’ll be about taking what’s available and, if necessary, creating offense by getting the puck deep and pressuring, or by defending and transitioning.

In the defensive zone, it’ll be incumbent upon the Penguins not to do what Evgeni Malkin did on Tuesday afternoon against the Flyers.

Malkin’s horrific, you-shouldn’t-do-that-in-a-pickup-game breakout pass wound up on the tape of Philly’s Kevin Hayes in the slot and, soon thereafter, in the back of the Penguins’ net.

It was just an exhibition game, so who cares, right?

Except it was also an ominous example of what can get the Penguins beat in the best-of-five qualifying round much more than anything the Canadiens might be able to muster, and an eerie reminder of what got the Penguins swept out of last season’s playoffs by the Islanders.

Strong structure, sound defense, disciplined puck management.

Repeat as necessary.

That matters more than who starts in goal or who lines up where and when on the power play.

Particularly in a re-start the likes of which no one has seen previously.

Game on.

Playoff hockey in August.

It’ll be up to the Penguins to embrace not just the actual playing of the games, but also how they’ll need to be played.

Courtesy of Getty Images

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