ST. PAUL, Minn. — The hockey gods chose not to reward but to punish the Pittsburgh Penguins for a flat opening 40 minutes followed by a heavy push in the third period. On a night when both teams honored Marc-Andre Fleury, a disputed goal and a few sparkling Fleury saves were the difference.
Minnesota scored the game-winner on a puck that appeared to hit the netting behind the Penguins’ net, but referees ruled the replays inconclusive. Minnesota beat the Penguins 3-2 at Xcel Energy Center, and the Penguins wasted one of their several games in hand on their playoff competition.
They have 34 games remaining.
The controversial review did not sit well with Penguins star center Sidney Crosby nor coach Mike Sullivan.
“I know they’re not going to get every single one right, but don’t have a review if you’re not going to at least have decent angles to get it,” Crosby said.
Chants of Fleury cascaded from all levels of the raucous Minnesota crowd as the goalie put on a show in the final minutes. It was a throwback to so many games at the Civic Arena and PPG Paints Arena.
It was Fleury’s night as the teams paid tribute for his 1000th game and win No. 552, making him the second all-time winningest goalie in NHL history.
“We had probably five or six scoring chances in the last 30 seconds (in the) 6-on-4. It’s a great chance to score,” said Evgeni Malkin. “We tried, but the Wild played very well. They were blocking shots.”
The Penguins had won the previous nine games against Minnesota with Sidney Crosby in the lineup and were 9-0-1 against the Wild since Oct. 28, 2017.
Jeff Carter slotted as the Penguins’ fourth-line center. Colin White took the right wing in the absence of Noel Acciari, who suffered a concussion after Winnipeg Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon’s illegal hit on Tuesday. Dillon was suspended for three games.
Following a nearly 15-minute pregame tribute with a couple of misty moments for Fleury, who also spent 14 years with the Penguins organization, the first period was lethargic and unemotional. Neither team got to double digits in shots, and it took nearly the entire period for Minnesota to claim an 8-7 shots lead.
Matt Bouldy scored a pretty power-play goal as if to add insult to the Penguins’ power play, which was a lifeless 0-for-3 in the first 20 minutes and 1-for-6 in the game.
Crosby Scored a power-play goal to tie the game in the third period, but it was clearly Fleury’s night. The Wild goalie made a few sparkling saves, including a pair on Crosby and one on Rickard Rakell charging the net.
Fleury made a couple of seemingly impossible saves in the final minutes, too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins wasted their chances in the first period and did not seize momentum despite an early double-minute penalty to Minnesota defenseman Jake Middleton.
They were badly outplayed in the second period.
With the exception of a couple of offensive rushes, the Wild had zone time and pressure, especially in the second. It seemed an oddity that Minnesota outshot the Penguins only 23-21 after two periods.
There were times that it looked like Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic was bobbing metal duck a shooting gallery. Minnesota was quicker to pucks, took them to the net, and seemed to be ever ready to shoot.
No Penguins player had more than two shots after 40 minutes, and that might have been a function of “Minnesota nice” scorekeeping.
On the chalkboard, the Penguins neither got to the forecheck nor created frustrating traffic in the neutral zone, at least in the first two periods. The defensemen, specifically the top pair with Marcus Pettersson and Kris Letang, had an uncharacteristically bad night. They were not only on the ice for Minnesota’s three goals but also lost pucks, and battles on the first two directly led to the tallies.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Minnesota had nearly twice as many scoring chances (13-7) and twice as many high-danger chances (6-3) after 40 minutes.
Yet the Penguins trailed by only one.
They even tied the game on Crosby’s power-play goal in the third period and looked like a refreshed better team, but the hockey gods had other ideas. Minnesota winger Karill Karpizov scored the go-ahead goal with 10:26 remaining on that disputed play. The Penguins en masse raised their arm to signal the puck hit the netting above the glass on its way around the boards.
However, no definitive replay existed. The goal counted.
The Penguins had plenty of help around the net on the game-winning goal, but Crosby sealed the slot, not seeing Kaprizov sneak into the Penguins’ house from the weak side. He was wide open to snap the rebound past Nedeljkovic.
The Penguins tried to turn it on in the third and steal one, but they were one bad call and several spectacular Fleury saves short.
The hockey gods had spoken.
Penguins Report Card
A good third period upped their grade from an F to a C.
It was tough for the Penguins to find their footing in the first period, but that’s the result of failing to seize momentum from three power plays. It wasn’t just a lack of goals but a lack of energy and forward push that kept Minnesota in the game when the Penguins could have put them away early.
Power Play: D
Nine shots in 10:15 of power play time don’t sound bad, but the shots were generally low quality until Sidney Crosby put two on the net in a few seconds in the third period. Fleury made an unbelievable save on the first. The second one lit the lamp for a tie game.
Easily their worst game of the season. Pettersson doesn’t get beaten often, but he was on the wrong end of a couple of plays against the talented Wild top line with Karill Karpizov.
He and Letang were victimized twice.
It’s one game and hardly a cause for over-the-top criticism, but it was surprising nonetheless for that pairing to be in the eye of the storm.
Evgeni Malkin: B
Malkin was better Friday, setting up Reilly Smith for the Penguins’ first goal.
P.O Joseph: C+
Had some hop, but it was in spurts.
Lars Eller: D
Took a double minor for high-sticking and another minor penalty later. A prime penalty killer and bedrock of the lineup can’t do that.