Penguins results improve as roster returns to health
By: Wyatt Silverman
After a difficult stretch, the Penguins and their fans were hoping the annual road trip to Western Canada would be an opportunity to get back on track. Well, it kind of worked out. Despite a bad loss to Vancouver, the team has gone 4–1–1 in their last six games. The stretch concluded with a tough OT loss to an elite Chicago team on Sunday afternoon.
The Pens started their trip with a 2–0 victory over a dreadful Edmonton team. Evgeni Malkin scored his 20th goal of the season, and David Perron solidified the lead with a marker against his former team. Marc-Andre Fleury had a shutout.
Up next was a more impressive win against a Calgary squad that currently sits in a Western Conference playoff spot. Pittsburgh extinguished the Flames with a 4–0 shutout. Fleury stopped all 21 shots, earning his eighth clean sheet. With that, he took the NHL lead, as well as the Penguins single-season franchise record. Perron threaded the needle to earn the game winning goal. Brandon Sutter also scored, and Sidney Crosby had two nasty goals to break out of his minor slump.
The next night, things didn’t go so well. The Penguins continued their streak of participating in shutouts. However, they were on the losing end, as the Vancouver Canucks smacked them down, 5–0. Pittsburgh backup Thomas Greiss had a mere .815 save percentage, and allowed three or more goals for his sixth consecutive start.
Upon their return to Pittsburgh, the team had more success, starting with a 4–1 W over an elite Detroit Red Wings team. Blake Comeau returned to Malkin’s wing after a 20 game absence with a wrist injury. He was immediately rewarded with a goal and an assist. His return allowed the team to return to a more ideal lineup, and his chemistry with Malkin and Hornqvist didn’t seem to miss a beat.
As the Penguins took a 3–0 lead into the second intermission vs. Ottawa, it seemed like the success of the previous game would continue. With great goals by Letang, Crosby, and Malkin, it appeared that the team was firing on all cylinders. Even when Mika Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman brought the Sens to 3–2, it wasn’t time to panic. Five minutes later, Crosby and Kunitz flew down the ice, and Sid buried one to restore a two-goal lead. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end. Less than a minute later, Mark Stone buried one. Right after the ensuring face-off, 13 seconds later, Kyle Turris scored his 11th of the season. The Pens held them off until the shootout, where David Perron was the only successful shooter. After the dramatic collapse, they were lucky to escape with the victory. Again, Thomas Greiss had a sub-.900 save percentage, but his flawless performance in the shootout redeemed him somewhat.
On Sunday afternoon, the Penguins played a marquee matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks. After a scoreless first period, and a goal by Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson, the Pens eventually fought back with a Nick Spaling goal early in the third period. The game was filled with exciting back-and-forth action by two of the NHL’s best teams. Especially in the third period and overtime, the elite players on both squads were flying. The Penguins put 37 shots on goal; the Hawks had 32. Goaltender Corey Crawford had an extremely solid performance. Eventually, the game went to the shootout, where the Penguins went 2/3, and the Blackhawks made all three shots. Patrick Kane had a highlight reel shot against Fleury.
One storyline of note during this stretch was the coaching staff’s decision to scratch Beau Bennett for a ten-day span. Concerned with his effort along the boards, and an overall perimeter mindset, the coaches determined that he should sit out a few games. He missed the entirety of the road trip through Canada. Despite his solid possession metrics, it was deemed that he should sit. Based on his performance against Chicago (9 shots), the gambit may have been effective.
Up next, the Penguins play Washington on Tuesday night. The Capitals haven’t allowed the Pens to score all season. They currently sit in an Eastern Conference wild card spot, and are a possible playoff opponent. Pittsburgh will need to find a way to break through. Thursday night features a matchup against the scuffling Columbus Blue Jackets. On Saturday, the Pens travel to St. Louis to play the Blues. St. Louis is currently has the second-most points in the league; clearly, they will be a tough test. The next night, they return to Consol Energy Center, where they will play the Florida Panthers. Although the Panthers are not a playoff contender, they have several potential trade targets for the Pens, including Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes. Ryan Wilson over at HockeyBuzz wrote a good piece earlier this month, discussing Bergenheim as a possible option. http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog/Ryan-Wilson/The-Two-Best-Realistic-Trade-Options-For-The-Penguins/177/66161
This week will be a big test for the Penguins. With two strong playoff teams on the agenda, they will get an opportunity to test their mettle.