The Pittsburgh Penguins had to win in regulation and hope either the Philadelphia Flyers, or Boston Bruins take the Washington Capitals to OT or outright beat them. The Penguins took care of their end of the bargain with a 1-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday.
The Penguins needed some help from their third-string goalie Maxime Lagace. The 28-year-old journeyman goalie Leg-A-Saved the Penguins a few times, including a dandy glove save on Victor Olofsson midway through the third period. Lagace stopped all 29 shots he faced.
“I don’t think we had our sharpest game, so we really relied on him. And I thought from the get go, we didn’t think much of it,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “We felt comfortable with him. And he was calm and poised back there. So I thought he did a great job.”
Overall, Buffalo outshot the Penguins 29-23.
The Penguins start was, at best, conservative. Buffalo outshot the Penguins 11-3 in the opening 20 minutes, though the Penguins didn’t play poorly.
Instead, the Penguins were not aggressive in the offensive zone. With Maxime Lagace in net, the Penguins were protecting their goalie.
“We don’t want to be a team that goes back and forth, trading chances,” Pettersson said. “I think we want to create offense from our defense … like I said, I don’t think it was our sharpest.”
The Penguins overly conservative mindset changed in the second period, and they changed quickly.
The Penguins first and the only goal was scored by Jeff Carter, of course. And the goal was set up by Frederick Gaudreau, of course.
Gaudreau disrupted the Buffalo breakout then stole the puck behind the Buffalo net. “Freddy Apples” served his fourth assist in two games to Carter with a soft pass in front of the net. Carter (17) neatly finished Gaudreau’s handiwork for his fifth goal in five periods against Buffalo.
“It doesn’t take too much chemistry when you have a guy that skilled down the middle of the ice,” Jared McCann said of his linemate Carter. “So it’s been going really well for us here. We’re going to look and try to carry that in the playoffs.”
Still, the Penguins shots were few and far between.
Buffalo goalie Michael Houser, who played his youth hockey in the Pittsburgh area, only had to make three saves in the first period, but one of those was an outright robbery. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel bore down on Houser on a two-on-one, and the 28-year-old Buffalo rookie did the splits to swipe a sure goal away from Guentzel.
In the first period, Jared McCann had two shots. Guentzel one. And that was it for the Penguins. Yikes.
Things weren’t much different in the second. Team MVP Sidney Crosby did not have a shot in the first 40 minutes, but he had one hit, one takeaway, and won eight of 11 faceoffs.
Lagace was increasingly good in the Penguins net. He made a few sparklers in the second period. On the Buffalo power play midway through the second period, he stuffed Casey Mittelstadt on a point-blank chance. A few minutes later, he firmly denied Drage Caggiula, who scored a pair of goals on Thursday, on a breakaway.
“He was awesome for us. You know, he was a big part of our win,” McCann said. “If it wasn’t for him, it would definitely have been a different story. So we’re all happy for him.”
Despite Buffalo’s 24-9 shot advantage, the scoring chances were dead even, 15-15, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel avoided injury late in the third period when Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen cross-checked him from behind into the boards. Sidney Crosby, who was feisty throughout the game, was prepared to exact revenge but pulled up at the whistle and penalty call.
The Penguins finally turned the shot clock in their favor in the third period, though Lagace made the save of the game when he swiped a one-timer Olofsson midway through the final period. The save preserved the slim Penguins 1-0 lead and spurred the Penguins to control the puck for the next several minutes.
“Coming in, (I had) lots of nerves. So when you get a couple of shots right off the bat, you can get rid of those nerves and you just feel more confident as the game goes on…” Lagace said. “They put a lot of pucks on net for the first two periods. So I felt really comfortable. The guys cleared any rebound that had to be cleared. So it makes my job that much easier and have them to thank for the results as well.”
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin could be seen flexing his leg in the third period. He missed 23 games due to a lower-body injury and only returned this week.
“Geno thought he tweaked something on that collision. He got checked out afterward and felt fine,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “…We held him out for precautionary reasons.”
PHN’s Pittsburgh Penguins 3 Stars:
- Michael Houser
The pride of Youngstown was pretty, pretty good on Saturday. Who knows how many more NHL games he’ll get in his career. He lost on Saturday, but he played out of his skates.
- Jeff Carter
The Penguins center is on his game. So is Freddy Gaudreau. But Carter gets the goal, so Carter gets the glory.
- Maxime Lagace
His first NHL shutout. The Penguins had a few breakdowns and called on their goalie a few times. Lagace answered the bell.