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Penguins Grades: Winning the Right Way and What That Means



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin celebrates

Their better angels against the overaggressive demons. The Pittsburgh Penguins game is coming together. They faced a notorious trap situation in which they returned from a successful west coast trip on Friday and were right back into game action Saturday. Yet, after a slow few minutes, the Penguins controlled the game in a 4-0 shutout of the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena.

It’s the type of game that usually sees dragging legs and panting tongues. However, the Penguins settled into their better game. They didn’t take silly chances. Instead, they controlled themselves and controlled a low-event game.

Hint, hint for future reference. That’s the Penguins’ game.

Get Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap here.

The Penguins were structured, and their mistakes were few. No, seriously. It’s been a trend that we haven’t seen in these parts for a long time. It was the Penguins who created another layer of neutral zone traffic and allowed Buffalo, who also played on Friday night, to make more mistakes.

“As of late, it feels like it’s starting to come together a little bit more, and things are falling into place a little bit easier,” said Erik Karlsson. “We’re getting the results to go with that. We’ve won a couple of games where we haven’t played our best, which gives us gives us confidence.”

The Penguins have won four in a row because they’re finding their sea legs.

Penguins Analysis

Advanced analytics be damned. The Penguins played the better game; even if showed Buffalo with twice as many high-danger chances after two periods (8-4) and the Penguins with zero high-danger rips in the second, the Penguins were clearly the better team.

“I think it’s essential (to win these low-event games). I think we’ve talked a lot about cutting risk out of our game,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s hard to win consistently in this league if you’re a high-risk, high-reward team. There’s such an element of chance, (that) you’ve got to take care of the puck. And I think it’s an important aspect of winning consistently in this league. And we’re trying to work diligently at that.

“When you look at the group we have. We’re wired for offense. That’s just part of our DNA. Our tendency is to want to make plays all the time. And I think it’s important that we just don’t force plays when they’re not there. And I think the players are doing a great job just trying to stay disciplined in that regard and making sure that we take what (the opponent) gives us.”

And those three periods Saturday were the equal of the shutouts over Colorado and Anaheim this season. Disciplined, low event, and yet uptempo hockey.

The Penguins are zeroing in on their identity. Even if they think they’re wired for more, they’re finding the sweet spot. The results should be tough to argue.

“We’re playing with urgency, we’re playing together, and I think we’re having a lot of fun,” said Tristan Jarry, who earned his third shutout in 10 starts this season. “Every time we step on the ice, the guys are doing a great job. They’re blocking the shots. They’re getting pucks deep. We’re taking control of the game; it really helps us, and it really makes us assertive.”

And the reasons for the excellence were simple: structure and aggressive patience. The Penguins pressured the puck high in the defensive zone, creating a transition game. They didn’t overcommit on the forecheck (OK, the third line did once, but Tristan Jarry made a 10-bell save on Zemgus Girgensons in front of the net). And in Mike Sullivan’s vernacular, they made good decisions with the puck to maintain possession.

The Penguins top line with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust continue to shine brightly. The line is just all over the ice, Rust is on every puck, and Guentzel seems to leap from the shadows for a scoring chance while Crosby controls the puck.

The Penguins’ third line–that one flaring mistake notwithstanding–also pinned Buffalo in the defensive zone several times, which began Crosby’s next shift in the offensive ice.

The Penguins also won the goaltending battle. Tristan Jarry, playing for the first time since Tuesday, when he suffered a facial injury and left the Penguins game in the second period, was very good. He stopped the good chances that he faced (I think fewer chances than the scoresheet showed, just as I firmly believe the Penguins had a few more high-danger chances than shown).

Also, Tristan Jarry clearly won the goaltending battle over the Sabres’ Ukko-Pekka Luukonen. To whit, Drew O’Connor’s first goal of the season wasn’t soft. It was really soft.

“Felt good to get that first one,” said a beaming O’Connor.

O’Connor, who admitted to PHN this week that he had a growing monkey on his back, threw off that figurative primate with a 40-foot wrister that dribbled through Luukonen and lit the lamp.

But the better team gets those bounces.

The Penguins have won four in a row, and this one much more resembled the shutout over Anaheim, and that’s a very good thing.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card

Team: A

They played with structure, poise, aggressive puck pressure, and a proper forecheck. The Penguins didn’t lose their marbles going after a goal but, instead, forced Buffalo to beat them. And Buffalo couldn’t. The Penguins converted their chances and were able to squeeze Buffalo in the third period.

Tristan Jarry: A+

He didn’t have to be spectacular, but he was perfect. He made several stops that were beauties, and he keenly directed the rebounds.

“Like I said before, hard work was going to get me out of (the slump), and that was mostly what I’ve done the last two weeks,” Jarry said. “It’s ‘not stop,’ not stop working hard. And I think that’s the best thing you could do to show the guys that you’re working, you’re committed. And I think it’s been it’s been like that for all 23 of us right now.”

I’ve heard a lot less Jarry negativity lately. I suppose one bad game will open the gates for the zealous, but his last three games have been excellent.

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust: A

They’re just better than everyone else. Great counterattack. Great puck control. Great puck pressure and the ability to finish. They didn’t have an even-strength goal Saturday, but they dominated.

O’Connor-Eller-Zohorna: A-

O’Connor scored. They had several game-defining shifts. In particular, one shift in the first period pinned Buffalo in the defensive zone for a full minute. The third line wasn’t credited with a shot, but they pressured Buffalo and were grinding the defensemen along the wall. The superior shift put Crosby on the ice in the offensive zone, and the first line continued the pressure.

The shift prior, the Sabres were beginning to seize momentum, but the third line wrestled it away. That’s everyone you can ask of the bottom six.

Nieto-Acciari-Hinostroza: B+

They shut down Buffalo. ZERO scoring chances against. Hinostroza had the first high-danger chance of the game when he bolted between two Sabres defensemen early in the first period. That seemed to spark the Penguins. They’ve only scored in one game (San Jose), but they again did their job Saturday, though a little more offensive pressure would be welcome.

However, the bottom six created momentum and zone time, and the top lines enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

It’s all coming together.