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Penguins Grades: Crosby Carries Team; Pens Have Rough 24 Hours



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Sidney Crosby

CHICAGO — There are low event games, and then there are D’oh event games. The Pittsburgh Penguins have endured a bruising 24 hours, from losing at home to the Florida Panthers in a game that felt like a curtain closer, and in the process, lost primary scoring winger Jake Guentzel for at least the next 24 days with an upper-body injury.

A broken heart and a busted lineup followed, but Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby saved the day with a pair of goals and a relentless game. Perhaps Crosby should have worn a cape.

The Penguins took a 2-0 lead on the hapless Chicago Blackhawks, who got rookie phenom Connor Bedard back in the lineup after he missed a few weeks with a broken jaw. The Penguins started and closed strong in a 4-1 win over Chicago at the United Center.

In the house that Michael Jordan built, it was fitting that Crosby carried his team.

“It looked to me like he was trying to will it for us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought he was locked in from the very first shift. He was strong on the pucks all night. His line was a threat on most shifts. I thought he was on his game all night.”

Chicago, like the ghost of Christmas Future, showed the Penguins what they’re in for in the next five years. (You sure you want to head down that road??). After taking a 1-0 lead on Crosby’s goal just 15 seconds into the game, the Penguins’ sloppiness and mistakes were overshadowed only by Chicago’s inability to make the cash register ring.

And the Penguins were at times sloppier than a footlong Italian Beef and hot peppers with the bun dipped in the juices.

But at times, they were also as good.

It was a tough day on Thursday.

“I don’t think it’s tough to get up for (the game). I think we needed to —  obviously, the last game didn’t go the way we hoped. I don’t think we weren’t competing. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way,” said Drew O’Connor. “I think we have to respond the right way (to the adversity). You’re going to go through ups and downs in a season. So, I think this (game) was a good thing, a good response, a good start. Hopefully, we can start going in the right direction again.”

Without Jake Guentzel, who was placed on the long-term injured reserve list before the game, the Penguins’ lineup featured a pair of call-ups, Valtteri Puustinen and Jonathan Gruden. Puustinen played on the third line with Lars Eller and Jesse Puljujarvi. Gruden had fourth-line duty.

Read More: Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap.

Bedard and Crosby provided the highlights for their teams. Crosby’s goal on the first shift was the ninth time in his career he’s lit the lamp in the first 30 seconds. Crosby also went coast-to-coast, ripping a backhand past Chicago goalie Arvid Soderblom that hit the post so squarely and so hard that it ricocheted directly back to the slot. And in the third period, Crosby sealed the deal with a goal from the doorstep.

Bedard led a two-on-none after Penguins defenseman Ryan Graves whistled a breakout pass behind O’Connor. Bedard set up Philip Kurashev for an easy tap-in.

“There was a buzz in the building. Every time (Bedard) touched the puck, the buzz got louder and louder,” said Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. “He made a lot of plays tonight. They just didn’t connect on them.”

That Bedard kid is going to be just fine.

That Graves kid has been a different story.

Penguins Analysis

In the second period, the Penguins appeared to be an emotionally spent team. Good intentions were replaced with pedestrian effort, turnovers, and some bad hockey, especially after getting a 2-0 lead.

Not to be outdone, the rebuilding Blackhawks were worse. Crosby converted a pair of goals, but Bedard doesn’t yet have the luxury of enough quality NHL players around him.

The Penguins tried to protect the lead in the third period, and Chicago blew past their 1-2-2 setup. One near breakaway and one Bedard break behind Kris Letang was enough for the Penguins to snap out of their shell and forecheck a little harder.

It was not a game that will be well reviewed in the film room Friday, but given the circumstances, perhaps coaches will grade on the curve.

The number of lost pucks on the mid-wall, errant passes, and plays into nothingness were high.

The Penguins closed out the game well. For the first time in the game, the Penguins held onto the puck, forcing Chicago to defend for more than a few seconds.

A few things the Penguins did well, especially in the first period:

The Penguins played a good low-to-high-low game. The wingers swung to the slot like a bumper and had space to shoot or distribute. Rickard Rakell delivered a couple to Crosby on the weakside post.

The Penguins–at least the top six–used speed for controlled zone entries on the wings.

Penguins Grades

Team: B-

They won. They absolutely had to win, as a loss would have further exacerbated a bleak outlook and salted the Guentzel wound. However, they had only 26 shots and eight hits. The game was not decided until Bryan Rust’s backspin lob wedge for the empty net goal.

The top six were good or good enough. Marcus Pettersson was good. Jeff Carter went above and beyond. And Alex Nedeljkovic was good.

Sidney Crosby: A+

The Penguins needed a win. Crosby delivered. If there is a player who can pull the Penguins out of the mess they’re in, it is him. He did just that Thursday. Just enjoy what he can do. The Matrix only makes one like him.

Rickard Rakell: A

He didn’t assert himself by shooting, but he flashed that magic playmaking ability several times. He looked pretty good, certainly his best game in a spell.

Ryan Graves: F

Graves French fried when he should have pizza’d. Most of Chicago’s best chances came against the Graves-Erik Karlsson pairing, and it’s hard to say they were Karlsson’s fault.

It would be a laundry list of times Graves stumbled, yielding chances. His errant breakout and lost positioning led directly to Chicago’s goal. He was on the wrong side of chances near the net and pretty well out of sorts.

Reilly Smith-Evgeni Malkin-Drew O’Connor: B+

Malkin and the line was good. He worked the space that Chicago gave, and the puck seemed to follow him around. When he swooped past the defense and tried a wraparound early in the second period, it was obvious he was feeling pretty good.

“I thought the second line had some really good shifts. I thought (O’Connor) was on pucks. His speed was noticeable,” said Sullivan. “Geno had the puck an awful lot tonight. I thought Reilly had a strong game. So you know those guys — Reilly scores a goal, they generated some offense. It was more than that. I thought they had the puck a lot.”

Jeff Carter: A

Carter led a makeshift line with call-up Jonathan Gruden and Colin White. He won eight of 10 faceoffs and had a pair of glorious scoring chances that he created with a good forecheck: a short breakaway and a point-blank wrister.

Carter deserved a goal, but creating the chances was good enough.

Newbies: Missed Opportunity

Puustinen and Gruden were given an NHL chance and figure to get a few more. However, neither did much with their limited ice time.

When you have a chance, do something, anything, with it. Slam an opponent. Race for all of your might for a loose puck. Do a little crash-and-bang near the net. Do something to get noticed. Neither did, and neither made any impact on the game other than allowing the Penguins to play with four lines.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A

Another solid performance from the Penguins’ backup. Or is he the 1a? Whatever Nedeljkovic’s role, he’s been a stellar netminder, and he stuffed some good scoring chances.