PITTSBURGH — Facing the porous Islanders was never going to be a litmus-test game for the Penguins, but it still presented a challenge.
Would they get drawn into a chance-for-chance game, or would they take their own advice and focus as achieving the territorial dominance that makes them as tough to beat as any team in the league when going well?
If the almost scary shot differential in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime defeat of New York at PPG Paints Arena are any indication, the Penguins accomplished their mission long before Sidney Crosby‘s overtime winner skidded through the legs of Islanders rookie goalie Christopher Gibson.
It took 50(!) shots on goal and 82 total attempts, but the Penguins (37-25-4) got back to the winning formula they so often mined in the opening eight weeks of the new year … even if much of the game felt destined to be a loss.
“There were a lot of things to like about our game tonight,” Mike Sullivan said. “It just seemed like the puck didn’t want to go in for us. It was one of those nights. You can feel it behind the bench. I just liked our stick-to-it-ive-ness.”
Derick Brassard‘s tying goal with 8:31 left in the third exemplified the Penguins’ persistence against a motivated Islanders team that had dropped five in a row to fall out of a playoff spot. Breaking open in front of the net, Brassard gathered a firm shot-pass from Phil Kessel and stashed the puck around Gibson’s left leg for his first goal since the trade that brought him in from out of the Ottawa chill.
“We were down in the score, but we felt like we were playing a pretty good game,” said Brassard, with cameras and microphones surrounding him once again. “Shooting 50 times on their goalie? It was a good effort from our team to bounce back.”
That rebound was as much personal as team-oriented. Not only did the Penguins erase a pair of one-goal deficits — Patric Hörnqvist‘s power-play redirect did the trick the first time, late in the second — the defending champs also picked up rookie goalie Tristan Jarry.
While the Penguins sprung from the starting gate with a mind-melting barrage of shots and chances against the unfamiliar Gibson, making his fifth NHL appearance, Jarry inexplicably allowed a 40-foot backhand from New York defenseman Brandon Davidson to skip into the net just 1:11 into the game.
If that goal were any more of a dog, you’d be able to hear it barking from your couch.
“I don’t know what he did, quite honestly,” Sullivan said, smirking as he searched for a description for Jarry’s sudden stumble.
“Bad things happen,” Bryan Rust said. “Everyone makes mistakes or gets bad breaks. I think that’s how we saw it. We got behind him and just pushed harder.”
Jarry didn’t have a better explanation for his all-time gaffe, other than to agree on its ugliness.
“I think it was one of those fluke things where my skate got caught on the ice,” he said. “It was a little easier when I came back to the bench (during media timeout) and saw 90 percent of the guys laughing. It’s tough to swallow, but I’m glad we won. It does make it a little easier. Everyone falls on the ice but I happened to fall at the worst time.”
After getting pulled in two of his previous four starts and giving up five goals to the Bruins in relief Thursday, Jarry could’ve been excused for turtling after his embarrassing moment. With the Islanders’ offensive pressure best described as sporadic, he didn’t have much of a chance to redeem himself until late. But in overtime, he stoned John Tavares and Nick Leddy on golden chances in the right circle, giving his mates a chance to grab the extra point.
“He battled back and made some awesome saves,” Rust said of Jarry’s 25-save performance. “That just shows his character.”
It helps when Crosby is on your side, too. The captain’s 22nd goal erased any remaining angst from regulation, when the Penguins struggled to make their shots count while the Islanders (29-30-7) got great breaks on both of their tallies.
Putting the weird New York goals aside, Jarry said he felt his work with goalie coach and confidant Mike Buckley paid off in the pressurized setting of March hockey in the NHL, a “high-stakes environment,” to use Sullivan’s post-game words.
“I felt good,” Jarry said. “The last two games I struggled a little bit and I didn’t like where my game was at. I think tonight was a good performance for me, a good bounce-back and something I could grow on.”
As for his teammates, there’s still no real danger of sliding out of the Eastern Conference playoff field with 16 games to play. Even if they had lost in regulation, the Penguins would’ve been seven points ahead of the postseason cutoff.
There is still some sorting out to do regarding lines and pairings, but the Penguins are unmistakably well-positioned to get their engine fully revved by the time the season’s final month expires and the quest for a three-peat truly begins.
“We’re not going to change a thing,” Hörnqvist said. “We just have to keep going and trust ourselves.”
While Hörnqvist was simply describing one game, he could’ve also been speaking on the season at large, assuming the Penguins are able to carry some semblance of Saturday’s process into the games ahead.