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Penguins Grades: LOTS to Like, Pens ‘Back in the Fight’

The list of good performances was long after the Penguins squashed the Washington Capitals



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nedeljkovic and Sidney Crosby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pittsburgh Penguins winger Rickard Rakell admitted it was the biggest game of the season. The Penguins trailed the Washington Capitals by three points for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and the teams faced off Thursday night with decades of history behind them and a season’s uncertain fate ahead of them.

The Penguins saved one of their best performances of the season for a 4-1 win over Washington at the Capital One Arena.

They squashed the Capitals.

It wasn’t a vintage or typical Penguins’ performance, but there was a raw determination that had not been visible until recently. There was a lot to like and coach Mike Sullivan was as happy as he’s been after a game in a long, long time.

The Penguins did whatever they had to do and remarkably remained structured even as Washington brought everything they had in the third.

“Couldn’t be happier for the players. You know, I think they’re having a lot of fun right now,” said Sullivan with a healthy dose of approval. “They’re competing. They’re battling hard. It’s not perfect, but I love our energy and enthusiasm and compete level. This is fun to watch. So, I couldn’t be happier for the players.”

The Penguins didn’t need many shots in the first period to acquire a 2-0 lead. In fact, they needed two. The Penguins scored on their first two shots on very similar plays. Ryan Shea scored his first NHL goal from the left point, and later in the first period, P.O. Joseph netted a goal from the same spot when his point shot deflected off multiple Capitals.

The Penguins’ third shot was an uncontested breakaway by Michael Bunting, the Penguins’ first unsuccessful shot.

Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic made his seventh straight start. He was a little stiff in the first part of the first period, but the Penguins’ adjustments kept him clean.

In fact, the Penguins made a couple of major tactical adjustments. It may not have been as beautiful to watch as the onslaught of the third period against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, but from a hockey perspective, it was as good as the Penguins have been.

Oh, and defenseman Ryan Shea scored his first NHL goal at 1:49 of the first period.

Penguins Analysis


Not only at 5v5, but on the penalty kill, as well. The Penguins were simply better.

The Penguins buttoned up. They held firm in a slightly different formation and even dropped into a 1-4 in the later half of the second period.

Who knew they even knew how to do that?

“I think you don’t want to sit back. And we did a pretty good job of that,” Crosby said. “You try to stay out of the box as best you can, but if we gotta get kills, we gotta get kills. I think, for the most part, we were on our toes and didn’t sit back, and I think it was great to get everyone involved and be a part of that.”

With four games in six days on the heels of the brutal March travel schedule, the Penguins are fighting the schedule as much as their opponents. By creating neutral zone traffic and layers into the offensive zone, the Penguins forced the average Capitals defenseman to carry the puck more.

Did anyone notice Capitals’ d-man John Carlson? Nope.

Alex Ovechkin was largely contained, too.

The Penguins smothered Washington, sacrificing shot volume for control of the game. Of course, it helped that Washington is not a fast team and by forcing Washington to the outside, the Penguins were able to meet all zone entries head-on.

The shots were only 8-6 Capitals after one and 16-14 after two. Washington was aided by the third period power plays (one obvious call on Kris Letang, one soft call on Erik Karlsson) and desperation but the Penguins largely stayed between the puck and Nedeljkovic.

It didn’t hurt that Washington goalie Charlie Lindgren was not good. But more impressively, the Penguins’ ability to stay within the system and within themselves was a cataclysmic sea change from the too-often haphazard, sloppy team of the first 70 games.

There were plenty of “extra hustle” plays, too. Drew O’Connor, Joseph, and Letang made diving plays at different points throughout the game, underscoring their gritty determination.

“Just trying to dig in and give ourselves a chance. That’s the conversation that we’ve had,” said Sullivan. “You know, we’ve tried to just stay in the moment and focus on that one game in front of us, and we’ll see where it takes us. But, we certainly (have) kind of got ourselves back into the fight.”

Penguins Grades:

Team: Blue-collar perfection

The Penguins did not overwhelm Washington. They didn’t demoralize them with a suffocating forecheck or frustrate them with relentless puck pressure.

No, the Penguins were remarkably successful with the conservative game plan. They took away space by being there and holding their ground.

Penalty Kill: A+

Yes, they gave up a goal, but the kill was exceptional. Stunningly so. O’Connor’s work was spectacular. The net-front protection was very good. The Penguins also had a little wrinkle or two to keep Washington out of the zone or from setting up. It was also a good night for assistant coach Mike Vellucci who runs the PK.

Power Play: Solid

The Penguins had only one opportunity in the first 40 minutes. Even though it’s been the bane of their existence this season, the Penguins’ PP created zone time and pressure. With a 3-0 lead, that was all they needed, and they were able to create momentum instead of ceding it.

Their second power play later in the third period was a little wild. The temptation to try to put the game away was palpable, but they settled and put a few shots on net.

Performances to Like

There were many, but we’ll circle the ones most above the curve.

Joseph-Letang. It’s easy to praise what they’re doing. Joseph, elevating his game at this time of year in place of Ryan Graves, has created a steady, stable blue line that defends, moves the puck, and … defends. It’s one of the bigger reasons for the Penguins’ recent turnaround.

“I think it’s definitely the last couple of games, (momentum) helps. And you want to win, and you have the taste of it in the last couple,” Joseph said. “You’re trying to create this feeling in the room, everyone smiling and everyone is in a good mood. So it’s just, I think, everyone’s working together in the same boat.”

Joseph and Letang work well together, too. There were a couple of sequences in which they wiped out what could have become the Capitals’ scoring chances covering each other, and their breakouts were very good. Skating. Defense. A bit of offense.

Joseph was especially good. A+.

Drew O’Connor. It was not a fast game, so O’Connor stood out. He made a couple of hard defensive plays to take the puck, and he used his speed to make a few controlled zone entries. The line had few shots, but they didn’t need them. They worked the dirty areas of the offensive zone.

In the third period, he had one of the best penalty kill shifts I’ve ever seen on the 5v3. I’d put it just behind the famous Brooks Orpik’s Free Candy shift of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. It was that good.

The winger played like his hair was on fire.

Jeff Carter. Covered the net front hard on the PK. He won 10 of 14 faceoffs, and he doesn’t take the easy offensive zone draws. He played 2:50 on the PK, which was really good, if not great.

Jack St. Ivany. This was his type of game. He put himself in perfect position—between his man and the net. He stayed close; his responsibilities didn’t get free, nor did the Capitals get many pokes near the net.

Alex Nedeljkovic. It’s Ned’s net.

He took the blame for the Capitals power play goal; he wanted to cut off the pass. He’ll be forgiven.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are just a different team. The locker room is a different place.