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Penguins Grades: Winning Differently, the Pens’ New Magic Formula



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nedeljkovic

An oddly timed 6 p.m. faceoff against the Stanley Cup champion and elite Western Conference team one day after losing a heartbreaker to a division rival and their third game in four days. The Pittsburgh Penguins had a few reasons to have a bad game Sunday but instead snapped their two-game losing streak by beating the Vegas Golden Knights 3-0 at PPG Paints Arena.

It was also a game of firsts.

Defenseman Ryan Graves scored his first goal as a Penguin in the first period. Fourth-line center Noel Acciari netted his second point this season and first goal as a Penguin in the second period.

The game was not clean-cut, and the Penguins were far from dominant, but they also had far more good rips at Vegas goalie Adin Hill than Vegas had at Penguins netminder Alex Nedeljovic.

That’s a good formula for success unless those few chances are too good to miss (as the Penguins have allowed several times this season). Sunday was not one of those days when the opponents had wide-open looks from below the dots.

This gem from Lars Eller might sum it all up.

“When you’re playing a good team, you’re not getting a whole lot of chances in the other end, either,” said Eller. “So some shifts you just have to defend and commit to defend, and some shifts–when the chances are there–we’ll take them. But we can’t force the passes and plays. When we do that, we get in trouble, and we lose.”

They didn’t do that. And they won.

Pittsburgh Penguins Analysis

Both teams were on the second of back-to-backs (as it should be), and neither were particularly sharp. However, the Penguins were cognizant to not press for offense. Only a few times did they sell out chasing a goal.

Of course, it helps to have a lead, but the Penguins had leads against Carolina and New Jersey but insisted on trading punches in hopes of a knockout. Sunday, the Penguins kept their head (and heart) in check.

What the Penguins did well: Uniformly, the Penguins kept the Golden Knights to the perimeter. Sometimes, it was staying above the puck. In other instances, the Penguins aggressively raced back to defend. The Penguins have a little speed advantage over the Golden Knights, so even when Vegas had numbers on the breakout, they didn’t have numbers in the offensive zone.

“(Odd-man rushes). That’s probably the easiest offense that a team can get … But I think it’s important for us to have diligence that we limit those for our opponents,” said Sullivan. “A lot of it is just discipline, and it can manifest in some different ways. We’ve got to be responsible with our puck possession in the top half of the offensive zone.”

The Penguins most certainly were on Sunday, far more so than Thursday and Saturday.

According to, the Penguins allowed only 10 high-danger chances. That seems about right, and it’s a perfect example of the team playing a simple, low-event style and winning.

Limit chances, be patient, and rely on talent to convert one or two more than the opponent. When the Penguins allowed themselves to be patient and disciplined, they have won every game this season. 

Drew O’Connor and Lars Eller seemed to lead the team in backchecks.

Nedeljkovic, a rotten Browns fan (we kid, we kid), was able to see every shot. There were no dangerous scrambles near the Penguins net in which Vegas had a stick on the puck.

With the puck, the Penguins stretched the ice against Vegas, which was a wise decision. When the Golden Knights are allowed to compact the zone, they’re unbeatable. They laid waste to Edmonton and Florida in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season by establishing two gargoyle defensemen near the net, which kept the opposition a mile away.

The Penguins’ patience was rewarded by winning a few wall battles and getting the puck to the net. That’s how Acciari scored. Graves’s goal came from a dogged Eller forecheck that created a turnover near the net.

Otherwise, neither team had many golden chances nor sustained offensive pressure.

It was another “low-event” win for the Penguins. Hint, hint. They might not like it, but that’s their formula.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B+

Patient, but not great. Smart without being overaggressive.

No line was great, but there were spurts of very good individual performances in lieu of a driving team effort. They outplayed Vegas, even if they didn’t win any style points.

Lars Eller: A

Eller had perhaps his best game as a Penguins center. His forecheck in the first period showed a speed burst that was a little shocking. It certainly surprised the Golden Knights’ defensemen.

Radim Zohorna had four shots in the first 40 minutes–a few of those can be traced to the good work of Eller.

The third line didn’t generate great chances after their goal, but they were very good defensively.

Marcus Pettersson: A

Shutdown defenseman. He’s finding his rhythm with Erik Karlsson and playing a smothering defense. He’s there when Karlsson is not. He’s blocking shots and passes and taking up a lot of space in the defensive zone.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A

He made the saves he needed to make. He kept the rebounds within reach, and he made the net small by being aggressive. He stopped all 38 shots and kept the game quiet by not bobbling pucks and allowing the defensemen to make the clear.

But he didn’t shoot at the empty net.

“You’ll have to ask (Kris Letang). I don’t know what he was doing there,” Nedeljkovic joked about the defenseman who zipped an up pass out of the zone with the empty net rather than serving it up to his goalie.

That’s the right call, but it would have been fun. Nedeljkovic is not short on personality–he wore his Miles Garrett Browns jersey into the locker room after the game.

Start Nedeljkovic on Wednesday vs. Rangers? It would not be the worst idea, though coach Mike Sullivan acknowledged Tristan Jarry was great vs. Carolina on Saturday, and it might be too soon to start a goalie controversy.

Ryan Graves: Solid

He finally got the monkey off his back. He also played the type of smart, disciplined game that we’ve been expecting. His pinches were few but well-timed. He cleaned up his crease. That’s his job.

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust: Set the tone, boys

The line continued to pace the Penguins with extended zone time, hard backchecks, and forechecks (Forecheck, backcheck, paycheck). They held onto the pucks low and refused to let the Golden Knights break out easily.

Saturday, Sc and his linemates faced Sebastian Aho. Sunday, it was Jack Eichel and the VGK top line. No points for Crosby, snapping an 11-game streak, but the line was again the dominant Penguins driver.

Mike Sullivan: Good adjustments

I generally ignore the Mike Sullivan criticisms. I have questioned if his message was stale, but he adroitly capitalized on the losing streak weeks ago to reset.

He’s pushing the right buttons. The team will always struggle with discipline and staying within the game rather than trying to dominate it, as the star players have done throughout their hockey lives. Notice the line changes later in the game–Sullivan put Noel Acciari on Malkin’s line late in the game. He shortened his bench and didn’t ride the fourth line as he’s done in the past. He made line changes for defensive purposes, and it worked.

That’s how Scotty Bowman used to do it. It’s smart.

Chad Ruhwedel left the game with a lower-body injury, but the coaches had already sheltered the third pair. Ryan Shea played less than 10 minutes.

Bad Grades: ?

The power play. The first effort had four shots and one great chance, by my count, and three shots by the official scorers’ count. The second power play opportunity was little more than a feeble waste of two minutes not worthy of discussion. It gets a C; one great effort, one terrible effort.

It’s hard to circle any player as having a bad game. Erik Karlsson will always have a pinch or two that make you wonder. Jeff Carter took a terrible defensive zone penalty off a faceoff, and Evgeni Malkin is missing his gallop (he was sick this week).

But no one specifically had a “bad game.”

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Jeff Young
Jeff Young
13 days ago

Not sure how anyone can watch the Steelers.

13 days ago

Was wondering what grade you gave Chad before injury, they said his name a lot tonight blocking shots and he layed some lumber on some hits to. Looked To my eye he was having a great game for the pens.

Thomas Tarka
Thomas Tarka
13 days ago

What about Geno skating the puck into o-zone with…his skates! That was fun to watch!

13 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Tarka

Malkin only gets negative news on this site. Sully finally put him out with an empty net and he broke his two game slump. If Crosby scores the empty netter it’s at the top of the page

12 days ago
Reply to  wesman33

oh stop. the person media personality that holds Geno accountable is is Mark Madden.

13 days ago

Nedeljkovic form is resembling his Carolina days.