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Penguins Grades: A Jeykll & Hyde Rebound Win, Puustinen Shines

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nedeljkovic, Sidney Crosby

The now you see it, now you don’t Pittsburgh Penguins were on full display Monday. The team staked themselves a 3-0 lead in the first 24 minutes. Then, they gave back their hard-earned gains to the Minnesota Wild in the waning minutes of the second period and the first few minutes of the third.

The Penguins lead evaporated until Sidney Crosby (18) scored a third-period power-play goal to claim the 4-3 lead and win at PPG Paints Arena.

There was plenty of good. It was simple, not flashy, and effective.

“I mean, no odd man rushes against us. We were pretty much sound defensively the entire night, minus the last couple of minutes there in the second period,” said Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. “When you’re playing like that — we played a pretty complete game overall — It’s easy to feel good about yourself and to have these guys and everybody feel good about yourself, even in a tight situation like that.”

The last few minutes of the second period, which Nedeljkovic referenced, were when the Penguins’ darker angels took their turn at the wheel.

Defensive mistakes like Rickard Rakell, who was activated from the LTIR Monday, not sealing the passing lane on a Minnesota rush, allowing Ryan Hartman a clean rip at Nedeljkovic from the circle for the first goal.

The Penguins’ top line again lost their head in the defensive zone when all three forwards and one defenseman flooded the right-wing wall. Jake Guentzel was the last at the Alamo trying to cover the net before defenseman Jake Middleton had an easy goal, uncontested from 10 feet.

Penguins defenseman Ryan Graves lost track of the puck movement and covered the wrong guy at the net front, allowing Vinni Lettieri to deflect defenseman Jon Merril’s shot. Why Graves was alone is yet another issue.

Minnesota had a few more good pokes at Nedeljkovic, but the Penguins calmed, and the goalie held his ground.

Penguins Analysis

The good: The Penguins contested Minnesota in the offensive zone. Just how conscientious the Penguins were in the first 30 minutes can’t be overstated. Minnesota managed a few scoring chances, but they had to fight for them. Penguins forwards were primarily in the right spots (one whoopsie by Valtteri Puustinen notwithstanding), and the defenseman did an exemplary job of taking the body or tying up sticks in the dirty areas.

They were a different team from the embarrassment of Saturday’s 7-0 trashing in Toronto.

“We’re in this thing together, the coaches and the players, and there’s a partnership there. And we’ve got to figure it out. We’ve got to do our part as a coaching staff to bring some solutions to the table. And we’re working extremely hard to do that,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re trying to put the players in positions to be successful. We’re trying to give them a really good understanding of what Penguins hockey looks like. And when we play it, we can be a real competitive team. We just got to play it more consistently, and then we’ve got to hold one another accountable to it.”

Perhaps the referees got a little too involved in the second period, and it became a special teams contest on a few soft calls, but the Penguins didn’t lose their focus until it all went wrong later in the second.

Did the Penguins relax, feeling the game well in hand?

“Just¬†getting the lead, not having to chase the game (was nice). I think that’s an important part,” said Sidney Crosby. “It would have been nice to put it away a little bit and not allow them to come back, but that happens when you have a lot of time left — It’s something that you’ve got to deal with. And they scored. We came back and got the next one, so it was a good response, and we’ll just try to keep building.”

The Penguins forecheck was good. They weren’t overaggressive or loose. Their puck decisions were largely correct, and they gave up very few, if any, odd-man rushes.

According to Sportslogic and Sportsnet, the Penguins had given up double-digit odd-man rushes in 10 of the last 12 games.

But oh, if Crosby didn’t get that power play winner. What would the analysis be, and what would the reaction have been if the Penguins failed to win in regulation despite a game well within their grasp?

Between a seven-goal beatdown and surviving a blown three-goal lead, it’s a step forward. Between chasing the Toronto Maple Leads like mighty mites playing up an age level and controlling the sub-.500 Minnesota Wild it’s a step forward.

But, the caveats remain. The Penguins continue to beat Western Conference teams like Colorado, Vegas, LA, Anaheim, and Minnesota but have not yet submitted the same neat homework against Eastern Conference teams.

The Penguins will get a shot to rectify the Eastern Conference problem Thursday against nemesis Carolina Hurricanes, who punctured their season almost exactly one year ago with a pair of one-goal wins.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card

Team: B?

It’s tough to factor in losing a three-goal lead in 11 minutes. For 48 minutes, the Penguins were clearly in control. The team played a structured, controlled, and patient game … except when they relaxed and made a few mistakes.

To mentally rebound from the Toronto loss was itself impressive. That loss had a chance to wreck the season, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating. The Penguins were never the same after those two Carolina losses last December, and there was a real chance that Toronto mortally wounded them.

Alex Nedeljkovic: B+

He was solid, if unspectacular. That he didn’t have to be spectacular was a testament to the team, but he made a few tough saves in the first period to stabilize the game. If he had let one of the early scoring chances in the net–that Toronto loss would have mushroomed on the bench.

He’s been a great pickup. He’s funny in the postgame interviews, too.

Was his attempt at an empty net goal online before Minnesota knocked it down? “It was going bardown!”

Sidney Crosby: A

Hart Trophy. Carrying a team that would otherwise be facedown in the hockey gutter. He just controls the play and changes games. He’s playing like a monster deep in the zone. No defenseman is safe.

Power Play: B

Their early third period chance deflated the team, but they scored two power-play goals, including the winner.

“It feels good. I mean, something that we’ve been working on, and it’s been a focal point here for a while,” Crosby said. “So to be the difference maker and be the difference tonight, I think special teams are always big, but hopefully, it’s a big confidence boost the way it’s going.”

Valtteri Puustinen: A-

I feel kind of bad for the minus. The kid kickstarted the Penguins game Monday by creating a turnover on the forecheck. The kid made a brilliant pass to Evgeni Malkin for the third goal.

He has to brush up on his defensive game a bit. That’s his weak spot, but, as we wrote last week, the 23-year-old Finnish winger just brings something more to the table. The Malkin line is better for it. He generates offense and makes the team better.

We’re getting pretty close to reporting you can safely order your Puustinen jersey. But if you want a puck, we recommend signs in Finnish. Kiekko is “puck” in Finnish.

“He has an aptitude for the game. You can see it in the decisions he makes with the puck,” Sullivan said. “But his enthusiasm to learn is what really excites us about him. And because of that, I think he’s going to get better quickly.”

Third Line: Meh

Drew O’Connor, Lars Eller, and Radim Zohorna weren’t bad on Monday, but they didn’t affect the game, either. They didn’t get a shot on goal. Zero. However, they had a couple of scoring chances.

If the Penguins’ salary cap situation were a little different, you might see one or both O’Connor and Zohorna get some press box nachos to take a breather. Instead, they need to figure it out.

Eller is solid. His role is defense. He knows it. He likes it. The other guys are there for the offensive sprinkles on Eller’s defense donut.

Graves-Karlsson: B

A late addition to the report card. They played well-ish. Graves is still not bedrock near his own net and Karlsson sometimes is miles away from it, but they kept each other in check and played a solid game.

Karlsson was a minus-2, but I put those goals on the forwards, not the defensemen.

The bigger test will be the high-pressure man-to-man system of the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday.