By: Wyatt Silverman
After March 7, the Penguins had very little to smile about until this weekend. With injuries galore, serious slumps, and a 2–5–2 record, things looked pretty dire. Although the team had played well in certain respects, the abysmal power play and poor shooting doomed them.
In the middle of the month, they had a four-game stretch where they lost to the Bruins, Red Wings, Devils, and Stars while scoring a combined total of 2 goals. A victory over the last-place Coyotes helped stem the tide, but losses to St. Louis and Carolina put the Penguins in a serious funk.
Injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist certainly didn’t help, nor did Chris Kunitz’s protracted slump. Although Sidney Crosby performed at a high level, his efforts were not enough to beat teams singlehandedly. Even though he had 4G–9A, Crosby was somewhat snakebitten; he shot 8.75%, nearly six percent below his career average. With a myriad of missed shots, post bounces, and the like, his performance was better than the numbers indicate.
Malkin called the team out for their lackluster play during his absence, stating that “We play so bad right now. It’s true. It’s not just one guy. It’s the whole team.”
On Saturday, the Penguins played the bottom-dwelling Arizona Coyotes. Fortunately, both Malkin and Hornqvist finally returned. The first period seemed like more of the same from the Penguins. Although they appeared to play well, they simply couldn’t put a shot past goaltender Mike Smith. Considering their opponent’s inferiority, and the loss earlier in the month, the mood at Consol Energy Center began to sour.
The game remained scoreless through the second period, but unfortunately, a Coyotes goal wasn’t the Penguins’ biggest fear. On a seemingly-legal check by Shane Doan, defenseman Kris Letang was severely concussed. Doan finished his check after 58 sent a pass up-ice, and Letang landed awkwardly on the ice then hit his head off the boards.
It took more than 3 minutes for Letang to even be escorted off the ice, and he spent the night under observation in a Pittsburgh hospital.
The team responded well in the third period. Although Tye McGinn broke through with an early goal, the Penguins scored the next three. Recent acquisition Daniel Winnik banged one home, and Steve Downie followed it two minutes later with a PPG. Downie also had a well-received fight against Doan, exacting a toll for the injurious hit.
Two minutes later, on a subsequent power play, rookie D-man Derrick Pouliot set Crosby up for an excellent goal. It may not have been his prettiest, but for those who missed his net front play, it was a sight for sore eyes.
Although the Coyotes scored late with the goalie pulled, the Penguins held them off, coming away with the W.
The next evening, the Sharks came to Pittsburgh for a rematch of their shootout victory earlier this month. That game was one of the most exciting all season, but with an unfortunate result.
The team was shorthanded (rotating five defensemen), because salary cap constraints precluded an injury call-up. Already missing Christian Ehrhoff, things looked tough for the Pens. However, David Perron was able to return after missing Saturday’s game. Things started off well for the Penguins, getting two first-period goals in a span of 56 seconds. Patric Hornqvist opened the scoring with his 24th of the season, and Chris Kunitz followed up with a long-awaited power play marker.
San Jose fought back with two goals in the second, and after a scoreless third period, the game went to overtime. Things looked promising, with some nice back-and-forth play. Then disaster struck. Hornqvist accidentally high-sticked Brent Burns, and drew blood. The Penguins would be forced to kill off 3:49 of 4-on–3 time.
Tenacious efforts by the PK squad, particularly Daniel Winnik, Rob Scuderi, and Max Lapierre, allowed the team to make it to the shootout. Lapierre, who went 13 for 14 at the face-off circle, had an excellent game to celebrate his birthday.
After the arduous penalty kill, the Penguins made it to the shootout. David Perron and Sidney Crosby buried a pair of nasty shots, and Fleury shut the door, giving his team a badly needed win.
The Penguins have six regular season games remaining, including two against the hated Flyers. There are only two matchups with teams in playoff contention, so it should be an easy road to a spot in the postseason. Hopefully the team can keep up their success from this weekend and enter the playoffs on a strong note. If Letang and Ehrhoff return to full health in time, this should be a dangerous team.