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Penguins Six-Pack: Change for the Better; Nedeljkovic Pulls a Surprise



Aaron Ekblad Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida are in different divisions, so they only play each other three times during the regular season.

That apparently is enough, though, for the teams to develop a considerable dislike for each other.

Although the Penguins and Panthers combined for just 22 penalty minutes during Florida’s 3-2 shootout victory at PPG Paints Arena Friday night, there were numerous scrums and run-ins, especially after Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov was bumped off his feet by Penguins defenseman Kris Letang during the second period.

Letang was assessed an interference minor that led to Florida’s second goal and the Panthers spent much of the rest of the evening targeting him with everything from hard hits to a punch in the face. That was a big part of the reason the Penguins ended up with eight power plays.

“They had their view (of the Barkov incident), and they made whatever interpretation they wanted,” Letang said. “Obviously, we’d have liked to have scored on those power plays. It might have gotten them off their game.”

Here are some of the highs and lows from that game:

1. Change is good. And long overdue

After watching the Penguins score on their first power play — and none of the six that followed — the coaching staff finally made a couple of significant personnel changes on the No. 1 unit when the Penguins were awarded their eighth and final try with the man-advantage.

Evgeni Malkin and Erik Karlsson were removed from the top group, with their spots going to Letang and Valtteri Puustinen.

Whether those switches will remain when the Penguins face Montreal Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena isn’t clear — “I don’t know where we’ll go with that moving forward,” Mike Sullivan said — but there’s no way that a team with so much offensive talent should be converting just 13.3 percent of its chances with the extra man.

It was, for a while, understandable that the coaches didn’t want to mess with a group stacked with future Hall of Famers, but 45 games is a lot more than a snapshot.  Sure, it’s possible that some egos might be bruised if players lose their spot, but that can’t be more of a concern than scoring goals and winning games.

2.  Poking the Panther

Alex Nedeljkovic gave the Pittsburgh Penguins another solid start, rejecting 29 of the 31 shots he faced during regulation and overtime.

And while it wasn’t recorded as a save, no play he made was bigger — or more spectacular — than one during overtime, when Nedeljkovic poked the puck away from Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour as he approached the net on a breakaway, with a chance to end the game.

“I’ve done it before,” he said. “It’s a pretty aggressive play. It catches guys a little bit by surprise. It’s a lot of timing. I make it look a lot harder than it probably needs to be, honestly. I end up on my back, more times than not. It’s just something that, every now and then, I throw out there.”

He picked a good time to do it Friday.

3.  Florida men

The Panthers are a very good team.

They made it to the Stanley Cup final last spring, and might get there again in 2024.

There is, to be sure, much to admire about this Florida club.

But not necessarily a whole lot to like, because the Panthers can be undisciplined — Florida averages 12 minutes, 56 seconds of penalties per game, second-most in the NHL — and, at times, downright nasty.

And no one embodies that quite like Matthew Tkachuk, who gets much of the credit for leading that franchise to relevance after being acquired from Calgary.

While he’s the kind of guy every team would like to have, Tkachuk also can be as annoying as a pebble in one’s skate.

He offered a reminder of that during the first period, when he got indignant that Penguins forward Jeff Carter had thrown a puck toward the Florida net after a play was blown dead.

Nothing wrong with getting upset about that … except that Tkachuk had done the same thing 22 seconds into the game, when a whistle stopped play because there was a delayed penalty coming on the Panthers.

There was no secret that Florida was about to be penalized, and play was halted as soon as Tkachuk touched the puck. That didn’t stop him from shooting the puck into the net Nedeljkovic had vacated so that the Penguins could get an extra attacker on the ice.

Game-changing? Not even close.

Necessary? Hardly.

In character? Completely.

4. First and foremost

Getting the first goal was important for the Penguins, although it would have helped if they hadn’t waited until the final minute of regulation to score another.

But while taking an early lead — this one was the result of Jake Guentzel’s power-play goal at 1:51 of the opening period — is good, it would be a lot better for the Penguins if they actually used to it consistently accumulate victories.

As it is, they are now 16-9-3 when going in front, 1-0.

That might not seem too bad, unless one looks at it alongside Florida’s record when it opens the scoring. The Panthers are 19-0-4 in those games.

5. Rakell can’t find the range

Rickard Rakell played his way off the Penguins’ top two lines recently, and his work of late might have contributed to the decision to shift him from the right side to the left on the third line Friday.

The switch didn’t do much for his offensive game, as Rakell was the only Penguins forward who did not record at least one shot.

He failed to score a goal for the sixth game in a row, a drought that came in the wake of a stretch during which he got five goals in eight games after a protracted slump to start the season.

Rakell has top-six talent, and the Penguins need for him to get back to producing like it.

6. Just like old times

Evan Rodrigues filled a lot of roles during his days with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he seems to be doing likewise for the Panthers, who signed him as a free agent last offseason.

Rodrigues isn’t going to steal the spotlight from guys like Sam Reinhart, Sergei Bobrovsky, Aaron Ekblad and Tkachuk, among others, but he’s a nice piece of the supporting cast.

He played left wing on Florida’s third line — although it’s tough to think of any group centered by Aleksander Barkov as a No. 3 unit — scored the Panthers’ first goal and finished with four shots on goal, tying Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe for the team lead.

He squeezed a lot of good hockey into 12 minutes, 58 seconds of ice time.