They were flat in the first 20 minutes and trailed 3-1, but the Pittsburgh Penguins kept digging their way out of the hole and earned a point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks at PPG Paints Arena.
It was a perfect symmetry to the first 41 games. Dig a hole. Fight back to even. Sidney Crosby scored a pair but so did young Vancouver star Elias Pettersson, including the OT game-winner. Pettersson had four points (2-2-4).
The Canucks are the second-best team in the Western Conference. In the first period, they flexed their net-front game, and Pettersson was in the middle of the attack.
Must Read: Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap.
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Pettersson undressed Penguins center Noel Acciari early in the first period. Acciari tracked Pettersson back to the defensive zone, but Pettersson was able to stop and turn, seemingly in defiance of physics, creating an open passing lane to Brock Boeser on the back post.
Pettersson had the secondary assist on a Canucks power-play goal a few minutes later.
Pettersson capped a standout first-period in the final minutes with a perfect tip on Filip Hronek’s shot. And Pettersson scored the OT game-winner on a breakaway.
However, the gritty Penguins pushed back, eventually tying the game with 29 seconds remaining. The Penguins outshot Vancouver 14-5 in the third as the charge was on, but the time ran short.
“I give the guys a lot of credit for competing and digging in and finding a way to grab a point,” Sullivan said. “I thought we competed hard the rest of the way. And so to get the six-on-five goal was huge. You know, we had our looks in the overtime.”
It was not a soft or stolen point. There was also a good bit to like about the Penguins’ game, especially in the second period and in the third. They deserved at least a point.
The locker room was caught between the dog and the fireplug. They knew they earned a point, but they also felt fortunate to get it because not many players had their best; the room was subdued without anger or happiness.
The first period began with a crawl. Both sides wanted to slow the other, but in the battle for space, Vancouver was better. The Penguins defense wasn’t terrible. The goaltending by Alex Nedeljkovic wasn’t bad — not bad at all — but Vancouver won a few battles.
And made a few star-level plays.
“(Nedeljkovic) was good, too. We weren’t strong enough. Two tips in front, it’s tough to save those,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “It was a hard-fought point.”
Then, the Penguins’ burgeoning goalie competition took another turn as Sullivan swapped Nedeljkovic for Jarry at the outset of the second period.
“We made the decision to switch goalies mainly because we were trying to create a spark,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We didn’t think our team had the energy that we needed or the juice, whatever you want to call it. I didn’t think we played with the energy that we needed to in the first period.”
Jarry was brilliant. Not only was Jarry unbeatable, but he did so with flair. He made a couple of high-glove saves with a windmill finish that would have made Marc-Andre Fleury proud. Jarry stopped all 12 shots in the second period.
The team needed Jarry, too. Trailing 3-1 after the first period, the Penguins pressed to get back in the game and suffered several defensive lapses.
Jarry made a quick stop on Dakota Joshua in the opening minute of the period. He made 10-bell saves on Andrei Kuzmenko and Sam Lafferty on clean wristers from the slot. He took away point-blank chances by Teddy Blueger and Tyler Myers, too.
“I think just being prepared right away and being able just to give the guys a sound game and be committed to every save,” the softspoken Jarry said.
Overaggressive defensemen and forwards not tracking back left good patches of ice open. Turnovers in the high zone opened more.
Those things happen when a team is behind by a couple of goals. It helps to have a goalie fix those issues.
In the offensive zone, the Penguins’ low-to-high game was their primary method. They were able to take the Canucks wide, establishing zone control, but perhaps they stayed too much to the perimeter. Vancouver ceded some possession to o
They didn’t get their sticks on the pucks in the greasy areas.
The Penguins also didn’t get the big break they needed … until the end.
After Sidney Crosby pulled the team to within 3-2, defenseman Erik Karlsson hit the post squarely. Late in the third period, Crosby had Canucks’ goalie Thatcher Demko sprawled on the ice but couldn’t lift his backhand high enough.
Overall, the Penguins weren’t bad. They just weren’t as good as the Canucks, but the overall margin was not significant. The Penguins hung with one of the best in the West, which boasts a potential Norris Trophy winner (Quinn Hughes) and some legitimate star power just reaching their prime (Pettersson, Brock Boeser).
Penguins Player Report Card
It wasn’t their best game, but they flashed that growing resilience and just enough of a grind game to get a valuable point. The Penguins are getting back to a roster dichotomy where some players are playing extremely well, and others…not so much.
The defense was spotty, in part because Vancouver is very good, but too many blind passes, and they slipped a bit in the net front.
Alex Nedeljkovic: Incomplete
Those goals were not on him. Not even a little. Sullivan absolved him of responsibility but also felt his team was flat and needed a kick in the pants, so he went with Jarry in the second period.
Tristan Jarry: A+
Jarry doesn’t make flashy or showy saves. He did Thursday. The windmill finish had just a little hint of competitive fire. Is it a bad thing that Nedeljkovic is pushing him for playing time? Absolutely not.
Jansen Harkins: A
I spoke with Harkins after the game. I tried to offer a few compliments to the young guy fighting to stick in the NHL. So, too, did another colleague a few minutes later. He played a strong game. He set up the first goal with a hard forecheck. Then backcheck.
“I’m just kind of playing a simple game right now. I’m trying to use what I have: speed and some physicality, creating some loose pucks and scoring chances that way. So I think our line’s been very solid lately.”
He drew what could have been a consequential penalty in the third period with a hard forecheck. To the criticism Harkins has received, I say nay nay. He’s become a solid fourth-liner. Speed. Tenacity. He’s also got a wicked wrist shot, and when he gets his sea legs, he could move up the lineup.
Evgeni Malkin: F
He just wasn’t very good. His noticeable moments were few, and the line generated precious few chances. After a post-Christmas burst, he’s slowing down again.
Erik Karlsson: ??
There’s always good, not so good, and what-in-the-world bad. Some nights, it’s difficult to keep a running tally and to decide if the good outweighed the rest. My gut says no, it didn’t on Thursday.
Vancouver plays a Rick Tocchet-tough game. Karlsson and partner P.O Joseph are not suited for that, but the Penguins have no other viable options. When the Penguins got on the attack, the pairing was very good. They move and defend with speed. When the play shifts to a ground offensive in the low zone, they’re in trouble. And they certainly were hanging by a thread a few times.
They continue to be one of the best duos and lines in hockey.