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Penguins Grades: Deserved Better; Why Pens Lost in OT



Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby: Photo Courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

TORONTO — The general feeling in the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room was that Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs was one of their best.

Yet the results were mixed. The Penguins earned a point, but their four-game winning streak ended when Lars Eller, Drew O’Connor, and Erik Karlsson were caught on the ice for more than 90 seconds at the start of overtime. Eventually, Toronto defenseman Jake McCabe had a short breakaway to beat Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic for a 3-2 OT win.

Coach Mike Sullivan confirmed after the game that Eller started overtime because Sidney Crosby was having an issue with his skate.

Nedeljkovic was fairly disgusted after the game, but with himself, not the team. His high praise of the team was accompanied by head shakes and grimaces, displaying dismay at the goals allowed and not earning two points.

“The Point is huge … I think we played a better game. We probably deserved two points tonight,” Nedeljkovic said with long pauses. “(It was a) pretty tough goal to give up — their second goal that was probably a little deflating. So it’s pretty tough to give that up. But I give the guys a lot of credit. They battled through it. They battled back and got a good bounce — went to the net — tied it up and bailed me out on that aspect.”

For the record, Toronto’s second goal was a hard-to-read turning shot by Auston Matthews, his 65th goal of the year. Matthews is pretty good at beating goaltenders.

Nedeljkovic made his ninth straight start and 10th straight appearance. He stopped 20 of the first 22 shots before McCabe’s goal.

But not many goalies are happy with goals against.

There was a rough overtime, another goose egg for the power play, and a lack of offense from the bottom six. Circle those factors.

The Penguins played a solid first period that quickly erased memories of the 7-0 debacle in December and demonstrated that the momentum from their eight-game points streak and four-game winning streak was intact.

“We had some good things in the game, and we’ve got to move by it,” Sidney Crosby said. “I think we’ll look at this — hopefully — as an important point down the road.”

The point put the Penguins in a tie with the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild-card spot and one behind the New York Islanders for third place. However, both teams have a game in hand.

The takeaway probably gets lost in the result, but the Penguins allowed only 22 shots in regulation to one of the best offensive teams in the NHL.

More on that in the Penguins Analysis below.

In the first period, a couple of Crosby tips were just wide, and they were a bounce or two away from a multi-goal lead. They settled for a 1-0 lead. And Crosby got plenty of oohs and aahs from the Toronto crowd (and media) for his determined performance throughout the game.

Maple Leafs’ pressure a few minutes into the second period took away the Penguins’ advantage when Matthew Knies twisted away from Jeff Carter at the net front for an easy tap-in.

Otherwise, the Penguins controlled the even-strength play.

The second period was a turkey on the table for the Penguins. Unfortunately for them, their power play was the recipient of the opportunities. Per their 2023-24 form, the Penguins’ power play was scoreless even as they had a few chances.

“I thought they did everything but score. They had a number of great looks. Sid had one on a one-timer from (Evgeni Malkin). (Ilya Samsonov) made a great save,” Sullivan said. “(Bryan Rust) had a great look alone at the net front. (Michael Bunting) had one right in the slot. There were a number of them … the entries were good. We had a lot of success in the entries in terms of gaining possession or gaining zone time. We’ve just got to stay with it.”

Penguins Analysis

There were many, many good things — the Penguins earned the power plays. But good gosh, score on a big one, eh?

What the Penguins did well: The Penguins’ forecheck was aggressive but structured. The great benefits were turnovers and limiting Toronto’s rush chances.

Anytime a team can limit Toronto’s speed, they’ve got a much better chance of winning.

The Penguins’ 5v5 play was largely above reproach. Several solid performances highlighted the Penguins game, including Lars Eller, who was in beast mode. Karlsson created a scoring chance 1v4 by outskating everyone. He was all over the ice, too.

“We dominated that whole game. I don’t really think that there was ever a time—they maybe controlled the start of the second period there, maybe—but I think that was it,” Nedeljkovic said. “I mean, we were all over them. A couple bounced a different way, and maybe we got three or four ourselves. But we played great.”

Except on the power play.

How does one dissect or criticize the power play at this point? It just is. The Penguins do not step forward to take the ice; their default motion is back—back to the top, back to the blue line, back to safety. They could afford a little more chaos. Blast away, retrieve, blast away.

Toronto’s penalty kill was aggressive. They did not respect the Penguins’ power play. The gaps to all pressure points were a few feet or less.

The Penguins defended very well. They limited Toronto to just five shots in the first and nine in the second. Toronto had chances, but the Penguins stayed in position and contested the chances.

“I think we defended pretty well. I mean, we didn’t give them much as much as they are probably used to,” said defenseman P.O Joseph. “They’re a pretty good team. I think we did a pretty good job, more in the first and the third, of staying with them and skating with them.”

Penguins Report Card

Team: A

At 5v5, they get a solid A. They were the better team. Harder on pucks. They kept the Toronto rush to the perimeter and generally limited rush chances.

The better chances, puck possession, and zone time were in the Penguins’ favor.

Power Play: C+

It just has to score there. Everything was on the table. Once. This writer was not as bullish as Sullivan. The power play was good only compared to past failures, not successful power plays. Eight shots on five chances isn’t burning up the stat sheet.

Shea-St. Ivany: A

They weren’t perfect. The pairing has limitations, but Ryan Shea and Jack St. Ivany found themselves facing Toronto’s top line with now 65-goal scorer Auston Matthews and held their own. In fact, they held their own against each Toronto line they faced.

Erik Karlsson: Yeah.

THAT was the Karlsson the Penguins have wanted to see. He flashed that superior skating and puck movement a few times. One vs four, and he got a clean look after breezing past two defenders. There were moments when he was vintage Karlsson.

Sidney Crosby: No grade necessary

If there is a player in sports who possesses that level of drive and determination combined with skill, I’m unaware. Younger Tiger Woods. Michael Jordan. That’s probably it. He forcefully changes the game. Crosby probably earned a few more Hart Trophy votes by shining brightly in Toronto.

Evgeni Malkin-Michael Bunting: A

The pair were really good. Bunting was getting deep under Toronto’s skin until something happened later in the second period. He did not seem to be skating as well in the third.

Malkin was flying. That might have been the best he’s looked in months. He was aggressive and skating on his toes.

Depth Scoring: D

The Penguins’ top six did their job. What about Valtteri Puustinen, Reilly Smith, Emil Bemstrom, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Jeff Carter?

Lars Eller was incredibly good, even generating some offensive chances, but the wingers have to be a lot better finishers.