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Penguins Six-Pack: Another Lead Slips Away; Karlsson Comes Through



Erik Karlsson, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL Trade Rumors

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a two-goal lead against Detroit with less than seven minutes remaining in regulation at PPG Paints Arena Thursday night.

For most teams, that would mean a victory is imminent.

For the Penguins, it meant things were about to get exciting, as they have so often late in Penguins games this season.

This time, the Red Wings scored twice in a span of 117 seconds to put the game into overtime, where Erik Karlsson eventually scored to give the Penguins a 6-5 victory.

“For some reason, we like to challenge ourselves,” Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic said. “A little bit more than maybe we should. But we got the extra (point) and that’s what counts.”

Coach Mike Sullivan was predictably unhappy about his team’s most recent late-game letdown — “We let them back in the game,” he said — but praised his players for the way they dealt with that self-inflicted adversity.

“That could have sunk a lot of teams,” Sullivan said. “It didn’t sink this group.”

Karlsson suggested that the Penguins’ problems began when “we started to play a little bit too safe, maybe” while Sullivan cited things like lapses in focus, commitment and attention to detail.

Nonetheless, the Penguins were pleased to run their record in the past 10 games to 7-0-3.

“We’re just finding ways to win right now,” Nedeljkovic said. “They’re not always going to be pretty. You’d like them to be a little prettier than that.”

1. His best shot

Karlsson continues to make some head-scratching decisions and plays in the defensive zone, but he also does things — scoring the game-winner, for example — that remind people why he owns three Norris trophies as the NHL’s top defenseman.

Karlsson ended this game when he took a feed from Sidney Crosby and pounded a slap shot past Red Wings goalie Alex Lyon from the slot, although shooting wasn’t necessarily the first option he considered.

“I wasn’t really planning on stepping in, but they played it kind of wide,” Karlsson said. “Their guy (defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere) screened the goalie and I just figured, ‘Why not?’ I think I was owed one, so I took my chances and it worked out.”

2. Breaking bad (habits)

Two of the Penguins’ most troublesome habits — their penchants for giving up goals shortly after they score one and for allowing goals late in periods — surfaced again Thursday night.

Detroit got its first goal 59 seconds after Drew O’Connor had staked the Penguins to a 1-0 lead, then scored its second with 13.8 seconds remaining in the opening period and its third with 35.8 to go in the second.

Whether the Penguins can exorcise those recurring flaws from their game before their season ends is, at best, uncertain, but it’s worth doing whatever they can to prevent lapses like those from scuttling their chances of getting into the playoffs, let alone of winning a round or two.

3. Getting possessive

The Penguins lost nine of their first 12 games that were decided in overtime this season, and in a lot of those, their opponent seemed to possess the puck a lot more than the Penguins did.

That was not the case Thursday, when they had a decided advantage in time of possession before Karlsson ended the game 100 seconds into the extra period.

“We had the puck the entire time,” Karlsson said.

Sullivan also noted the connection between how much the Penguins had the puck and how the game turned out.

“We did a better job with our puck-possession,” he said. “We’ve talked all year about this in overtime, some strategies that can help us, and I think puck-possession is so critically important in overtime.”

He also praised the Penguins’ shot selection in the extra period. Although they had just a 2-1 edge, they avoided taking ill-considered shots that could have allowed the Red Wings to get control of the puck.

“Our shot-selection, when we chose to shoot the puck, was more appropriate,” Sullivan said. “We had opportunities to score. When we didn’t, we hung onto it. We didn’t give it back to them. We made way better decisions with the puck in not forcing something that’s not there.”

4. Life of Reilly

Reilly Smith played well enough to earn a promotion from the third line to the first, and ended up earning a pair of assists to push his career total to 300.

He also failed to score a goal for the 12th game in a row, and the 18th time in the past 19.

Although Smith has not, for the most part, performed to expectations this season — remember, he was projected to be Jason Zucker’s replacement on the No. 2 line when the Penguins acquired him from Vegas last summer — he is versatile and capable of being quite valuable.

But it’s not unreasonable to believe that he should have contributed more than 12 goals in his first 73 appearances in 2023-24. If Smith can rediscover the scoring touch that allowed him to put up six goals in the first 10 games of the season, the Penguins’ prospects of getting into the playoffs — and perhaps even hanging around them for a while — will be greatly enhanced.

5. Saving face(offs)

The Penguins entered the game as the NHL’s best faceoff team, winning 54.8 percent of their draws through the first 78 games.

Detroit, conversely, ranked 14th in the league, with a success rate of 50.5 percent.

Nonetheless, the Red Wings had a decided edge on faceoffs in this game, going 38-31, thanks in large part to Dylan Larkin’s 21-9 performance.

Larkin did some of his best work against Crosby, who was just 1-8 on draws in the first period and finished the evening 6-14, one of his worst showings of the season.

Still, for all the faceoffs Detroit controlled, Lars Eller won what might have been the most important one of the game.

The Penguins had a defensive-zone draw 64 seconds into overtime, and Eller averted any danger of the Red Wings generating a scoring chance by beating J.T. Compher cleanly and pulling the puck to Karlsson behind the net.

“Lars won a huge faceoff to get the puck back to us,” Karlsson said.

Thirty-six seconds later, Karlsson scored the game-winner.

6. Quiet return for Aston-Reese

Former Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, who has spent most of the season with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids, made it into his second NHL game in 2023-24, playing left wing on the Red Wings’ fourth line.

He logged a team-low five minutes, 13 seconds of ice time — none of it during either of the Penguins’ power plays, even though he is a capable penalty-killer — and was credited with one shot and one hit.

He also was assessed a minor for tripping Evgeni Malkin during the third period, although it appeared that Malkin had clamped down on Aston-Reese’s stick with his arm and did not release it until the penalty was signaled.