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Penguins Grades: Slay the Dragon, Winning Ugly over Hurricanes



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Rickard Rakell

The Pittsburgh Penguins again engaged in a tight, grinding game with less space between the players on the ice than the scoreboard against the Carolina Hurricanes.

As has seemingly been the case for most of the last few years, the Penguins and Carolina were tied well into the third period. It took each team about 50 minutes to get their 20th shot, and for the third time in six games, the teams went to overtime. This time, they went all the way to the shootout.

Sidney Crosby.

That’s the name to know as if you didn’t. He was the only Penguin to put the puck in the net Thursday, as the Penguins beat Carolina 2-1 in a shootout. Crosby scored the Penguins’ regulation goal and lit the lamp in the shootout.

Get the Penguins recap here.

Tied 1-1, both goals were greasy. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored a beautiful re-direct goal. Teuvo Teravainen was given credit for a goal when Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic directed the rebound off defenseman Kris Letang, and the puck kicked back across the goal line.

The Penguins finally slayed that dragon. They ended one of the Metro Division streaks that have hung over them like foul mistletoe.

“Divisional games are big, and a team like that — this year and last year — look at all the games, they all look very similar to that, and we didn’t find a way to win them,” Crosby admitted. “So to get over the hump and get on the winning side, I think that’s big. And hopefully, that’ll boost our confidence in tight games like that. We’re going to see a lot of those.”

Penguins Analysis

Let’s start with coach Mike Sullivan’s quote from Wednesday when PHN asked what the team needed to do better or differently to flip the one-goal script in their favor.

“I think we’ve got to find a way to make sure that we’re every bit as hard to play against as they’re trying to be on us,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “And then I think we’ve got to take what the game gives us. When you play a team like Carolina, that’s a pretty stingy defensive team, the element of patience associated with your puck possession and the offense that you’re trying to create is really important because if you are trying to force plays that aren’t there — because maybe you go a handful of shifts and you don’t get anything — that’s when you leave yourself vulnerable to a counterattack opportunity.”

Put a pin in Sullivan’s foreshadowing.

Now, the count was decidedly against the Penguins. Carolina had 58% of the shot attempts and 64% of the scoring chances.

The eye tests may quibble with the latter. Of course, the advanced metrics also indicated it should have been a close game last Saturday when the Toronto Maple Leafs bulldozed the Penguins 7-0.

The Penguins largely did what they needed to do. In fact, the chalkboard might show the Penguins engaged in the Carolina man-to-man defense by deploying some of their own.

What the Penguins did really well was limit odd-man rushes. It seemed for a moment that Carolina would have a breakaway or two-on-one, but because the Penguins defensemen were not playing below the dots much, if at all, they were able to negate the potentially dangerous situations.

It wasn’t a wave of layers, but it was enough defense to keep Carolina from gobbling up the easy offense like Santa knocking down the plate of cookies on his way out the door … after he kissed mommy, of course.

Though Sullivan hedged a little bit, he, too, liked the overall game. Here’s what Sullivan said after the game.

“I thought we did a pretty decent job. We didn’t give up any sort of dangerous, odd-man rushes, two-on-ones, things of that nature. I thought we had numbers back for a lot of the night,” said Sullivan. “I thought in the second period, we had a few shifts where we had some extended time in our defensive zone. But other than that, I thought we were somewhat patient with our puck possession and just willing to play a North-South game. And I think that’s an important aspect of playing against a team like Carolina that defends the way they do.”

The Penguins played well enough to win. They kept it simple.

They have good goaltending — My opinion is Alex Nedeljkovic is a better OT and shootout goalie than Tristan Jarry. Nedeljkovic has won two shootouts in one week (Montreal and Carolina). Where the Penguins’ goalie situation goes from here will be interesting.

The Penguins also played smarter than Carolina, who took five penalties. Carolina may have had more shot attempts and scoring chances, but the Penguins played tenacious and were hard on the puck. Perhaps that surprised Carolina a little bit, and they took penalties as a result.

If there’s a hidden takeaway from which to draw optimism, inducing five penalties (four in regulation) speaks well of the Penguins’ game.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B+

I liked the Penguins game. Sure, they were on the wrong side of the puck for a spell in the second period. Sure, they didn’t create enough scoring chances to put three or four on the board, but they got down in the mud with Carolina. The Penguins were indeed as hard on Carolina as Carolina was on them.

It was an important step forward for the team, IF — IF they choose to take it.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A+

Nedeljkovic stopped 23 of 24 shots, got some help from the crossbar, and stuffed all three shootout attempts. “Ned” is having a significantly better season than we could have projected, and it feels like he’s beginning to push Tristan Jarry for playing time if not outright challenge Jarry.

It’s not a goalie controversy, but does Sullivan turn to Nedeljkovic again in Ottawa? That decision is probably very easy or complex, pending your view (*cue the reflexive anti-Jarry sentiment ).

Sidney Crosby: GOAT

He’s 36 years old. Be real, most of us by 36 make that old-man grunting noise getting out of a chair, yet Crosby is carrying a team on his back. That was a silly goal he scored on Thursday.

Power Play: D 

They generated five shots on four chances in regulation, and we’ll focus on the 5v4 version. Carolina’s PK absolutely stymied them at the blue line. The Penguins were chasing the puck back to their own zone, fumbling with zone entries and seemingly overmatched.

Jansen Harkins: B

It might be time to give the spit and gumption winger more ice time. He played a solid 9:45 Thursday, and he nearly scored on two separate shifts by skating hard and driving to the net with the puck. He hustles, and he’s playing a different game than he did in the first four games of the season when he seemingly wanted to prove he was a scoring winger.

He’s not. But he just might be a blood-and-guts winger with a good forecheck.

Noel Acciari: A

The Penguins’ PK came through in a big way, too. With less than six minutes remaining, the Penguins had to kill a penalty. This is where Carolina would get the heartbreaking goal, just as they’ve done in the five prior meetings, right? Nope.

Acciari means the world to the Penguins PK. He was also a puck hound Thursday. Nearly getting a breakaway and creating a little havoc for the Carolina defensemen.

Ludvig-Ruhwedel: A

Coaches are sheltering John Ludvig. He played just 9:01, but he’s doing good things. He and Chad Ruhwedel stayed out of trouble, moved the puck up, and kept Carolina off the board. It was a steady game for the Penguins’ third pair, which has recently been a revolving door and not exactly steady.