COLUMBUS — The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t admit to chasing the game or a sloppy first period. Both captain Sidney Crosby and coach Mike Sullivan said they liked the opening 20 and felt good about their game. Disagreements aside, the Penguins amped their game in the third and put down the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-3 at Nationwide Arena.
Sidney Crosby had his 16th career hat trick and was the dominant Penguins force. When the game teetered, it was Crosby who elevated his team with force to their fifth straight win.
Read Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap.
The Penguins captain also had help. Defenseman Erik Karlsson had two points, including the primary assist on Crosby’s game-winner later in the third period. With a few wiggles of his skates, he accelerated up ice to lift the Penguins offense.
But it wasn’t necessarily a pretty team effort. And therein lies the good. The Penguins have stars able to save them, but also the confidence to avoid panic. Five wins in a row can deliver that assuredness.
The Penguins trailed 2-1 after the first.
“I mean, I thought we had a decent first. I thought we had some good looks … But I thought the second, besides the penalties, I thought we grabbed (momentum) back, got some good looks,” Crosby said. “So (it was) just a matter of trying to play catch up a little bit. We tied it and then a couple of two-on-ones that we didn’t convert and just let them hang around … So it was weird that way, but I thought we felt pretty comfortable tonight as far as how we were playing, what we were generating.”
Overall, the Penguins seemed loose but steadily improved. In the first period, they were making mistakes, missing assignments, and generally chasing the play (except Crosby’s line).
Much like the game against the Buffalo Sabres, who statistically outchanced the Penguins on Saturday despite no real-world evidence to support it, the Penguins–on paper–well outshot Columbus in the first (12-7). But the paper and reality were diametrically opposed. A few Columbus misses, and a few more well-timed shot blocks kept the Penguins in the first period.
The early eye tests were not kind to the Penguins, at least to those watching from above. Puck management was a significant issue, as were a few players who abdicated responsibility for “pretty” hockey or more offense.
“I didn’t think the first period by any stretch was a bad period for us. I felt like we were in control in most of the game,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “They got two goals on, I think, six or seven shots. It wasn’t like there was a barrage of opportunities that we were giving up. They just happened to get a couple of some of the looks that they got. But I thought overall it was a pretty complete effort throughout the course of the game.”
Given the recent run, a Tuesday thud could have been dismissed. Usually, it’s the first game back from a successful road trip that causes pain. Even though it seemed the Penguins were destined to have one of those nights, the stars rose to the occasion. The captain and the Norris Trophy-winning defensemen brought the offense, and Kris Letang brought the defense.
Yes, Letang continued what is some of the best defensive play of his career, especially on the penalty kill.
It’s another good thing when those three players are on your side and playing well. In the end, the Penguins outshot Columbus 41-30, and outchanced them 26-21, according to NaturalStatTrick.com
At the start, it was the classic story: a good team on a streak that wants to play offense (pad their stats) against a bad team. The Penguins’ gaps at center ice allowed Columbus to have speed into the offensive zone. The sagging gaps at the blue line allowed strong possession, and missed assignments allowed Columbus far too many pucks in good areas.
That was the first 20 minutes. In addition to downplaying the sloppy first period, Sullivan also admitted the Penguins had to react and rally.
“I think the most important thing is that we reacted the right way to those circumstances,” the coach said. “And I think that’s what, for me, is the most encouraging part of just watching the group come together.”
The second period was better, kind of. The Penguins weren’t pinned in their own zone, but it was light years from their best.
The theme of the game seemed to be shaping up as a bad night for the Penguins, but Crosby’s line kept them in the game before putting them ahead. Four of the five goals came from the Crosby line, three from the captain himself.
Overall, the Penguins lacked the structure and patience they held in several of their most recent games. There were too many mistakes and too many players taking steps forward when a step backward was warranted.
However, if that’s the result of a “bad” game, the Penguins are shaping up just fine.
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card
I took a little well-deserved flak for not delivering an A grade to Evgeni Malkin on Saturday. He was great against Buffalo on Saturday, but I took him for granted and didn’t grade him.
So, we’ll balance that A with the poor grade he earned on Tuesday. He made several turnovers, including two on one shift that led to Columbus’s first goal. If Saturday was the best version, Tuesday was the opposite.
Sidney Crosby: A+
Sometimes, we should all pinch ourselves that we’ve been gifted with watching Crosby play hockey every night. Bryan Rust was very good, too. Rust was on the loose pucks, which kept offensive zone possession. He was gritty at the net, too.
But Crosby converted his chances. The goal-line goal was vintage Crosby, and on this one, Penguins center Lars Eller chuckled. Eller saw far too many of those against as a member of the Washington Capitals. Eller smiled. This time, he was on the right side of one.
“He was a difference maker for us tonight. Huge goal with that tip there. I’ve seen a lot of those over the years just from the goal line. So he was crucial for us tonight.”
Penguins Power Play: Incomplete
Just one chance? They had zone time and shots. Those are the positives. However, Jake Guentzel did little to obstruct goalie Elvis Merzlikins’s view. Guentzel was the primary net-front presence and parked beside the goalie rather than in front.
In fairness, it takes a certain insanity to face slap shots coming directly at you and try to tip them, but Guentzel’s side stance minimized the chance for rebounds or ugly goals on the Penguins’ lone advantage.
Only one power play? The Penguins remain in the bottom four of drawing power plays.
It was an important matchup for the Penguins’ third line against the Columbus third line with Johnny Gaudreau. Columbus was winning early.
Eller was really good. He was getting the pucks in the slot and on the wall. His five shots indicate how engaged he was in the offensive zone, but Drew O’Connor might want to forget the first period. He missed a few assignments in the first 20 minutes that put the Penguins in a bad spot and the puck on Gaudreau’s stick.
However, the line rebounded, and by later in the second period, they were dominating the Blue Jackets.
Penalty Kill: A
It was a Wendy’s night. Four-for-Four.
“I thought our penalty kill was terrific tonight. You know, they competed hard,” Sullivan said. “I thought Kris Letang, in particular, was really impactful on our penalty kill. He’s just so strong, and he’s quick to pucks. He anticipates well. He’s defending really well for us. So I thought the penalty kill was a big part of (the win).”
Tristan Jarry: B+
He made some tough saves and moved well. There was one goal that could have been stopped (Kirill Marchenko beat him short side on the first goal, even as Jarry had leather on it), but the Penguins goalie otherwise lifted his team with good saves in key moments.
Breathe easier on Jarry. He’s pretty good.