PITTSBURGH — The Penguins and Stars entered Sunday night with the exact same number of points in the standings, but in very different situations.
While Dallas had to gun for points above all else, since it’s clutching a mere wild-card spot in the Western Conference, Pittsburgh has climbed to the upper reaches of the Metropolitan Division, so it could focus on honing its game for the coming playoffs.
Making for even more of a test, the Penguins had played a so-so game in Toronto the night before, getting hornswoggled out of a goal via a dubious replay review, to boot. Taking on the talented, big-bodied Stars on short rest would replicate postseason difficulty about as well as any March game could.
So now you understand why all involved on the home side were so impressed with their stifling performance in a 3-1 defeat of Dallas at PPG Paints Arena.
“Those are the kind of wins you like to see,” said Jamie Oleksiak, who just so happened to bury a goal against his former squad in addition to stymieing the Stars in his own end.
“Overall this was a really good game for us,” said Patric Hörnqvist, whose power-play goal polished up a sluggish start to the game. “That was the best game we’ve played defensively in a long, long time.”
“You could tell by the way we played tonight that we’re trying to get into playoff mode,” said Casey DeSmith, who faced just 18 shots. “It was that kind of game. It was a playoff effort for sure.”
Hey, when the goalie is gushing like that, you know it’s real. The Penguins (40-26-4) collected their 14th win in 15 home games in a fashion that left nothing to chance, to paraphrase DeSmith. Alex Radulov‘s partial breakaway in the first was DeSmith’s stoutest challenge, and Radulov’s goal in the second period arrived during a two-man Dallas advantage.
By any measure, this was a defensive showcase by a team better known for its push-the-pace attack. Despite boasting top-shelf playmakers like Radulov, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg, the Stars (38-25-6) mustered just 28 even-strength shot attempts, tying the lowest total by a Penguins opponent this season.
Per Natural Stat Trick, dangerous Dallas had but five high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five. The Penguins didn’t light it up themselves, creating eight, but in the second half of a back-to-back situation, that was about as airtight of a performance as possible.
“That’s a team that has some dynamic people offensively,” Mike Sullivan reiterated afterward. “To limit them to the shots that they had, and the number of chances they had, that’s not an easy task. I thought top to bottom our team defense was as good as we’ve been all year. That’s what I told the guys after the game: ‘We’re capable of being every bit as good defensively as we are offensively when we pay attention to the details.'”
Thrived on Physicality
I will have more analysis on our Patreon page but suffice it to say the Penguins didn’t allow the Stars’ rough play to rattle them. Instead, they thrived off it, with none other than scoring-title hopeful Evgeni Malkin throwing two massive checks in the opening frame, one on Klingberg and the other on fellow Dallas defenseman Stephen Johns, a Western Pennsylvania native.
“Right away, first shift, we showed them we are ready to play,” Malkin said, before verbally shrugging off the empty-net goal that pulled him within one of Alex Ovechkin for the league lead.
“We understand we aren’t a tough team, but tonight it was the hardest played game I’ve ever seen.”
On the first night of a six-game trip, some of the Stars seemed flustered when the Penguins kept their heads down. Five minor penalties in the first two periods — four of them the violent variety — kept Dallas from giving much ice time to its top guns until the third period.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game,” Sullivan said. “We knew they were going to try to use their aggression against us. I was really pleased with the focus I thought our guys had as far as trying to get to our game and not play somebody else’s game.”
Scoring on the power play helps, too, even if one of two conversions was wiped out by a ticky-tack offside review. Hörnqvist had to settle for one goal, not a deuce.
The Big Rig
Of course, the 6-foot-7 Oleksiak fit right in with that Dallas identity when he was employed there, although he couldn’t seem to put it all together with the team that drafted him in the first round several years ago.
With the Penguins, Oleksiak has sprinkled in a level of size and strength this blue line was short on for a while. Scoring a goal is always nice, he allowed, but he wouldn’t betray any extra satisfaction in denting the twine against the guys in Dallas green.
No matter, because the smile on his face belied contentment that was probably more team-oriented than anything else.
“Obviously our skill and our speed is kind of what we’re known for,” he said. “But a lot of our games, you’re not going to be able to get away with outscoring the other team. I think you’ve gotta shut ’em down defensively and we did that tonight. … It was a good response victory for us. They’ve got a lot of skill and talent on that team.”
Yes, the Penguins outdid a Ken Hitchcock team on the defensive side of the puck. Wonders never cease.
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