Three games in four nights after a couple of hard-fought wins and holiday travel. The Pittsburgh Penguins flat start was only slightly less predictable than a network cop drama. After 19 minutes, the Penguins trailed the Washington Capitals 4-0. Starting goalie Tristan Jarry was pulled earlier in the period, and the team had not yet reached eight shots.
And then things changed. But not enough.
The Penguins did everything but tie the game in the third period as they outshot Washington 14-3 and blitzed the offensive zone. The Penguins had too many near misses and tips that were directed just wide to count but didn’t light the lamp a fourth time in a 4-3 loss to Washington at PPG Paints Arena.
Get Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap here.
The regulation loss had a rippling effect on the standings. The Penguins fell two points behind Washington for the second wild card spot and three points behind the Islanders, but Washington has one game in hand on both. Tampa Bay and New Jersey are also in between the Penguins and a playoff seed.
It’s a complex set of emotions for the Penguins. They vastly outplayed their opponent for most of the game, but the roof caved in on defenseman Ryan Graves and goalie Tristan Jarry.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle for (Graves). You know, we’re just we’re trying to find ways to get him going,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s obviously a quality defenseman, and we’re going to rely on him here moving forward. We’ve tried him with different people. We had him with (Kris Letang), and now we’ve got him with (Erik Karlsson). We’ve moved him around a little bit. I think sometimes, when a player comes to a new team, there’s an adjustment process. Some guys handle it better than others.”
Bad luck. Bad plays. Graves had a front-row seat for three of the first four goals, though a couple were eminently stoppable, too. Before the Pittsburgh crowd had a chance to collectively groan after Martin Fehervary beat Jarry from more than 40 feet away midway through the first period, Sullivan had enough.
Backup goalie Alex Nedeljkovic lept to his feet and into the net before the crowd had a chance to groan at another goal that shouldn’t have been.
“(Pulling Jarry) was a bit of both (performance-based and to wake up the team). I didn’t think (Jarry) had his best, but I didn’t think the team was at its best early in the game, either,” said Sullivan.
For the last 40 minutes, the Penguins displayed a contagious urgency, and a four-goal Capitals lead became a one-goal lead late in the second period.
Sidney Crosby scored one of those goals that seem to dot the big games in his career, especially when his team is in need. Trailing 4-1, the Penguins power play attacked like rabid animals. They had several rapid sequences in which they had Capitals goalie Darcy Kuemper sprawled on the ice but couldn’t get the puck across the goal line.
Until Crosby, still sporting the blackened left eye and ugly gash beneath it from being high-sticked against the Islanders on Sunday, swatted a fluttering puck out of the air while lying on his back near the crease.
“We did it the right way. We didn’t give up a ton (of chances) to try to get back in it. We were pretty smart that way,” said Crosby. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get that tying goal. That’s what sucks — that we battled back like that and fell short.”
Crosby’s power-play goal was the spark that lit the Penguins fuse in the second. They dominated play, and Crosby swiped the puck behind the Capitals’ net and delivered a spot-perfect feed for Jake Guentzel.
Beginning the third period, it was a one-goal game. More importantly, the Penguins willed themselves back into the game by adopting the recent trend that bucks seasons of style.
After missing the alarm clock for the 7:30 start, the Penguins reverted to the greasy, gritty play that flustered the New York Islanders and propelled them past the St. Louis Blues.
This very well might be the new Penguins’ identity, and if they can avoid four-goal craters, it’s quite effective. Washington didn’t have much chance to score after the first 19 minutes.
Beginning later in the first period, the Penguins fought for every loose puck, winning most of them. From there, it wasn’t high-flying hockey. The Penguins weren’t generating pretty goals on the rush; Washington took that away.
Instead, the Penguins crashed the net. They threw the puck to the dirty areas and kept plugging. They muscled for the inside position on the defenders, hoping for garbage goals. There was plenty of grabbing and holding and a little bit of tackling.
“The refs let us play,” one player told PHN.
The Penguins just missed several chances near the cage. They were undeterred, yet unsuccessful.
“I loved our compete level. Climbing back in the hockey game, we certainly made it a game,” Sullivan said. “But we can’t spot a team those types of goals early on.”
It’s a subjective grade because the team was sleepy at the start, but two players struggled mightily. Absent a collapse on the back end, the Penguins would have most likely been on the other end of the result.
They got to the scoring zones, possessed the puck, and played another hard-edged game.
But they lost.
Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin
At 36 years old, Crosby continues to defy age, logic, and every prediction. The contrast between his elite-level game and Alex Ovechkin’s rapidly declining game was jarring. The long-time rivals each scored a goal, but Crosby’s was a work of art while Ovechkin’s was a 50-foot softy.
Crosby dictates the game, and Ovechkin is being dictated to. The Evgeny Kuznetsov line with Tom Wilson and Ovechkin had zero high-danger scoring chances, while it seemed Crosby and Jake Guentzel firmly owned the low zone and net-front area.
Ryan Graves: Ouch
There’s no reason to pile on any further. Graves put himself in harm’s way by not taking the body or using his stick in the proper ways. A fact he admitted.
“So to look inward, I mean, some of it’s bounces, but it’s not all on bounces,” Graves said. “You’ve got to look at yourself. You’ve got to know why that happens and just need to be able to do your best stuff. You need to be able to find a way to stay in the game.”
Tristan Jarry: Double Ouch
It wasn’t a good night. Such things happen, though that won’t stop the crowd with an ax to grind from ignoring a season’s worth of good work. It would be unfair to seize on the one game, even if the grade would be an F.
Erik Karlsson: B+
Karlsson took the puck in the second period, and he flashed the dominant form that earned him a few Norris Trophies. Especially in the second period, Karlsson had a special jump in his stride and determination with the puck.
Penguins Fourth Line: A
The Penguins fourth line submitted the team’s first strong shift of the game with about five minutes remaining in the first period. They nearly covered a few gritty goals, exemplified by Jeff Carter skating over a loose puck in the crease but couldn’t tap it in.
They did what a fourth line is supposed to do — they added a little energy and spice when the team needed it.
Alex Nedeljkovic: A
His lone blemish followed an ill-advised screen by Graves. Nedeljkovic made a couple of saves immediately after entering the game, and everything calmed down.
Does he start in Boston on Thursday?