The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders met just four days ago, though the game left a sour taste with New York as the Penguins decimated the Islanders 7-0 at UBS Arena. With an immediate rematch, New York attempted to send a message from the opening puck drop when heavyweight Matt Martin dropped the gloves with Penguins defenseman John Ludvig.
The Penguins submitted another gritty effort, not always pretty and not always perfect, but effective enough for a 3-1 win at PPG Paints Arena.
Ludvig admitted after the game that the fight was his idea.
“To get everyone into it from the start,” Ludvig said with a smile.
“No one expected that. We expected an energetic first period,” coach Mike Sullivan admitted.
Lars Eller had a pair of goals (5,6), including the empty netter for the Penguins’ seventh win in nine games. They have points in eight. The lone regulation blemish on that record was the Dec. 16 meltdown in Toronto when the Penguins lost 7-0.
The Penguins haven’t lost in regulation since Toronto, but they haven’t yet played a great game, either. Instead, the Penguins are finding ways to win, and sometimes it’s a bit ugly.
Two victories over the Islanders in four days have significantly improved their playoff chances. They are now tied for the second wild card with the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils with 40 points. Washington has a game in hand on both.
Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic was brilliant. He stopped the first 34 shots before Samuel Bolduc (1) was the recipient of a pinballing puck near the Penguins net and snapped a wrister past Nedeljkovic later in the third period. Nedeljkovic also gobbled up a bouncing deflection by Mathew Barzal in the final minutes.
The goal cut the Penguins lead to 2-1. Nedeljkovic kept it there, stopping 37 of 38 shots. Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin stopped 35 of 37 shots.
After Martin’s attempted message at the opening puck drop, the first period didn’t go as planned for New York as the Penguins scored the only goal when Eller (5) finished a two-on-one, assisted by Jansen Harkins.
As they did in the first, the Penguins scored early in the second. Noel Acciari (3) deflected Drew O’Connor’s tight-angle shot past Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin.
The story of the first 20 minutes was the Penguins goaltending. Nedeljkovic stopped all 14 shots, including more than a few athletic or desperation saves.
The Penguins’ goalie tandem is statistically the second-best in the league, behind only Boston. Tristan Jarry and Nedeljkoivc, with a little help from third goalie Magnus Hellberg, have a .917 save percentage this season.
Nedeljkovic sprawled to make several saves in a few seconds during an Islanders power play midway through the first. The goalie also denied Casey Czikas on both a breakaway and a point-blank one-timer in the first period.
The Penguins controlled the beginning of the second period, taking some of the pressure off their goaltender.
Evgeni Malkin drew a couple of penalties in succession early in the second, setting nearly one minute of a 5v3. However, the Penguins barely missed the net on a couple of chances, neither earning a shot nor the sweet satisfaction of the red goal lights.
The Penguins earned a third power play midway through the second when the Islanders were caught with too many men. Jake Guentzel missed a wide-open net. The Penguins’ power play registered six shots on their first three chances but no goals.
Sidney Crosby missed a chunk of the second period after sustaining a pretty nasty cut below his left eye when Mathew Barzal’s stick clipped him on a follow-through.
Through two periods, Nedeljkovic stopped 25 shots. Malkin and the Islanders Brock Nelson each had six shots in the first 40 minutes. Nelson has long been a Penguins’ killer with 35 points in 40 career games, but Nedeljkovic was the tonic.
Nedeljkovic was impenetrable at the beginning of the third period, too. He once again denied a point-blank chance by Czikas. He improved his record to 6-2-2.
The Penguins scratched Radim Zohorna, who was sick on Friday but played Saturday in the win over the St. Louis Blues. Jansen Harkins moved the third line and Vinnie Hinostroza. The Penguins also recalled Ryan Shea as P.O Joseph is ill. Shea was scratched.
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Rickard Rakell
Reilly Smith-Evgeni Malkin-Drew O’Connor
Jansen Harkins-Lars Eller-Valtteri Puustinen
Vinnie Hinostroza-Noel Acciari-Jeff Carter
Marcus Pettersson-Kris Letang
Ryan Graves-Erik Karlsson
John Ludvig-Chad Ruhwedel