The Pittsburgh Penguins did a lot of things well Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena, like launching 45 shots at Buffalo goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
They outperformed the Sabres by almost every metric … except the one that’s registered on the scoreboard, where Buffalo finished with a 3-1 advantage.
Here are some highs and lows from the game:
1. Home is where the hurt is
PPG Paints Arena isn’t necessarily one of the NHL’s more hostile venues, but it’s a place where the Penguins generally have a pretty fair degree of success.
Not this season, though.
The loss to Buffalo was the Penguins’ second in a row at home and dropped their record there to a dishwater-dull 10-8-1.
If they fail to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second year in a row, their inability to collect more points on home ice might well be a critical factor. Especially when they’ve actually earned as many points on the road in 19 games (21) as they have in 19 at PPG Paints Arena.
“For some reason, we’re struggling at home a little bit,” Jake Guentzel said. “I can’t put a finger on why. We have to change that, fast. We need these points on home ice.”
2. Getting it right
The NHL instituted coaches’ challenges as a means of correcting egregious errors or oversights by the officials, and the Drew O’Connor goal that was waved off in the first period was a perfect of example of how the system is supposed to function.
Seconds after O’Connor tossed a sensational feed from Sidney Crosby into the Buffalo net (pictured above), Sabres coach Don Granato — presumably acting on the advice of his video coach — challenged that Crosby had entered the attacking zone before the puck did, which meant the play would have been offside.
Replays quickly confirmed that Granato was correct — it wasn’t a particularly close call, really — and O’Connor’s goal was taken off the scoreboard.
It shouldn’t have counted, and it didn’t.
3. Getting it wrong (maybe)
Unlike the ruling on the Crosby offside play, the decision to wave off a Guentzel goal later in the period really was a judgment call.
Rule 69.1, which was cited as the reason it was disallowed, reads in part, “Goals shall be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal.”
Now, there’s no question Guentzel’s hip grazed Luukkonen’s head as Crosby’s shot from the top of the right circle was approaching the net just before Guentzel deflected it, but it’s also true that Guentzel was operating on the edge of the crease and the contact appeared to be incidental.
Guentzel, for his part, did not dispute the ruling, saying that, “You just can’t hit the goalie. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.”
Still, while it’s reasonable to believe that goaltenders, like quarterbacks, should be protected by the officials, that doesn’t mean they should be bubble-wrapped. Some jostling around the net is inevitable, and goaltenders are going to be involved in it from time to time.
If the Guentzel goal is not going to count, the rule should state explicitly that any contact with a goaltender — no matter how minor or unintentional — will result in a goal being waved off. No exceptions. No need for interpretations.
It’s noteworthy that Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game that not only did he disagree with the call, but that based on the standards reflected by that ruling, he and his staff will have to reassess the situations that they will challenge in the future.
4. Sound switch
It’s hard to say whether Sullivan bumped O’Connor up to the second line as a reward for his good play or dropped Reilly Smith to the No. 3 unit because he hasn’t been the consistent offensive contributor the Penguins expected, but regardless of the reason, it was a good move.
O’Connor has been playing well, and did not look out of place alongside Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, and perhaps Smith will benefit from filling a role that includes a bit less pressure to produce offensively.
It is not a question of effort with Smith — his six shots Saturday were the most by any player on either team — but he hasn’t scored a goal in eight games and has just one in the past 12. That’s not adequate production for a top-six winger, especially when a potentially capable replacement is on the roster.
5. Early adversity
For the first time in 2024, the Pittsburgh Penguins did not allow a goal in the first minute of the game.
That might pass for progress, considering that they gave up one to Washington’s Tom Wilson 55 seconds into the Capitals’ 4-3 victory Tuesday and another to Brad Marchand of Boston 41 seconds into the Penguins’ 6-5 victory at TD Garden two nights later.
Trouble is, Buffalo did get a goal just 2:53 into the game, so the Penguins’ improvement was modest, at best.
Now, the Penguins rebounded from Marchand’s goal to defeat the Bruins and overcame the one Sabres forward Alex Tuch scored to outplay Buffalo for most of the game, but playing from behind is no way to collect points on a regular basis.
It’s no coincidence that the Penguins are 14-8-2 when they open the scoring, but 5-7-2 when their opponents get the first goal.
6. Where is Karlsson’s scoring touch?
Erik Karlsson’s offensive instincts and abilities were evident when he set up Rickard Rakell for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ only goal.
They were in the waning seconds of an extended two-man advantage, and Karlsson had the puck on the right side.
Rather than try to drive a shot past Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Karlsson spotted Rakell at the left side of the crease and sent the puck toward him so that Rakell could deflect it into the net.
Karlsson made an excellent read and an even better pass.
Nonetheless, when the evening ended, he had failed to score a goal for the 18th consecutive game and after 38 games, remained stuck on six for the season.
That is not acceptable for a guy who consumes a team-high $10 million of salary-cap space, and who pulls in that kind of money because of his offensive talents.