PHILADELPHIA — It did not take long for the game to resemble a classic rivalry tilt with plenty of ill-intent, angry scrums, dripping blood, and unsettled scores between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins earned perhaps their biggest win of the season (until the next one), beating the Flyers 4-1 at Wells Fargo Center on Monday. The Penguins pulled to within two points of the third-place Flyers with one game in hand.
Pretty? Surely not, though there was a beauty in the ugliness. Effective? Yes. And a new development might have rippling effects on the Penguins’ season.
Must Read: Penguins Recap, Bad Blood, High Sticks, and Penguins Win
Must Read: Flyers Recap, Flyers Lose to Penguins, Malkin Dominates
Beyond the win, the big ticket item that might excite coach Mike Sullivan is that the Penguins might have found their perfect lineup.
Sullivan flipped Drew O’Connor to Evgeni Malkin’s line but on the left wing. Bryan Rust took the right. Reilly Smith, who has played beside Malkin for nearly all of the first 39 games, dropped to play with Lars Eller on the third line.
The results were immediately and obviously successful.
“I think with (O’Connor) on the wing, it gives (Malkin) a little bit of a different look than Reilly. I like (Smith) playing with Lars and (Puustinen). I thought that line was really good. The way we’re constructed right now with (Malkin’s) line playing as well as they are, I just think it gives us more competitive balance. It allows us to utilize certain lines in certain situations … it makes us that much more difficult to play against.”
O’Connor set up Malkin for the backbreaking goal and added a speed element to the wing. The Penguins’ third line with Lars Eller might have been their best for the entirety of the game.
Smith and Eller had immediate chemistry, and both had noticeable efforts.
Midway through the second period, the Malkin line kept possession in the offensive zone. Their grind game created a tangled obstacle course of human beings between Chad Ruhwedel and the net. Ruhwedel scored his first goal of the year when his shot weaved through the maze into the net.
Oh, and the Penguins won. Expect to see these lines stick, as they most certainly should.
If grinding, gritty hockey with hard defense is beautiful, the Penguins were quite pretty. The aggressive Flyers create mistakes and rushes, but the Penguins limited those to a manageable number.
Sidney Crosby, who has largely carried the Penguins for much of the season, was uncharacteristically quiet Monday. He and Flyers forward Travis Konecny led all players with six shots, but neither had a point, and Crosby had zero high-danger scoring chances. Crosby and his line was also uncharacteristically underwater, at least on shot attempts, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Kris Letang, who had assisted on 12 of the Penguins’ last 16 goals (stat courtesy of Penguins historian Bob Grove), was also absent from the scoresheet.
Nay, it was the Penguins grinders and down-liners who lifted the Penguins. Rickard Rakell netted a power-play goal in the first minute of the game. Erik Karlsson lit the lamp from the blue line several minutes later, but the work to set up the goal was a who’s who of players recently under criticism.
Penguins defenseman Ryan Graves’s aggressive gap took the puck away in the defensive zone. Jansen Harkins pushed the rush to the Flyers zone. Harkins’s chip-and-chase created possession in the offensive zone when he forced a weak outlet pass, and Jeff Carter plowed through the Flyers’ to get the puck.
Carter plowed through bodies a few times on Monday.
Harkins’s shot was well off the mark, but Karlsson’s was on target.
**If you’re not keeping track, that was successive strong plays by Ryan Graves, Jansen Harkins, and Jeff Carter. Unequivocally, Graves played his best game of the season.
The Flyers had a high shot volume (37) but only seven high-danger scoring chances.
The Penguins protected their house. Yeah, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They continued their hard-nosed, honest hockey and showed toughness against a tough team, too.
“I think that’s what happens when they’re coming to our net. It’s a good chance to outnumber them,” Harkins said. “So we always want to have numbers at our net during the whistle and especially after the whistle. If they’re going to come in, we’ve got to be able to be there.”
The Penguins are becoming a physical team. Go ahead and re-read that.
Monday, the Penguins had a pair of imperatives. Limit Philadelphia’s rush chances by protecting the puck in neutral ice and the high zone, and keep pace with Philadelphia’s relentless work ethic.
Mission accomplished, though ever the coach, Sullivan couldn’t revel in it too much.
“I thought we did a decent job at times. And then, at other times, I thought we gave them some looks that we could have avoided,” said Sullivan. “They had a number of two-on-ones. We haven’t given up two-on-ones in a lot of games. A big reason for that is we’ve done a better job of responsible play in the critical areas of the rink — High in the offensive zone, along the offensive blue line, and just not making blind plays and being willing to reset pucks behind the goal line. And I thought we made some blind plays tonight that they picked off.”
Sullivan did agree they did a good job, mostly.
A prime example of what Philadelphia does well was about nine minutes into the second period. Penguins defenseman P.O Joseph kept the puck in the zone at the blue line–knocking it to the mid-wall. However, Flyers’ defenseman Sean Walker jumped ahead, a defenseman 50 feet from the net, to intercept the puck and launch an odd-man rush.
Some of those can’t be stopped. When a team sells out for rush chances, they’ll get some. The Penguins kept it to only “some.”
The Penguins did that and a wee bit more. It was the Penguins who pushed the puck to the low zone and forced the Flyers to defend. The Penguins’ hard work and their transition game forced the Flyers into five penalties.
However, as it’s done so often this season, the Penguins’ power play let them down. They scored on the first opportunity but didn’t score again despite 10 more minutes of power play time.
Fortunately for the Penguins, referees let the boys play in the second period. Even a heavy scrum with several whacks, tackles, assorted sundries, and infractions were not called.
With another third period chance, the Penguins were one-for-six with 10 shots.
Penguins Report Card
Sullivan was right–the Penguins didn’t squash the Flyers, but they probably could have. The Penguins were clearly the better team, and it looked like a very talented team vs. a rebuilding team.
That’s how it should look.
The multitude of things the Penguins are doing well, or at least properly, is growing. They’re learning to enjoy the net-front battles, and in the process, opponents are forced to devote bodies to defend. Karlsson and Ruhwedel scored from the top of the zone because the forwards brought chaos in the low zone.
The Penguins outplayed the Flyers. The Penguins flexed their talent advantage. And the Penguins flexed their depth advantage. The team has been doing a lot of that lately.
Alex Nedeljkovic: B+
On paper, Nedeljkovic should get an A+. He stopped 36 of 37 shots in a resounding win. However, Nedeljkovic seemed scrambly and a bit loose at times. He’s athletic, but he also plays a steady, quiet game, too. Monday wasn’t a quiet game.
The interesting question will be if Sullivan goes to a “win and you’re in” goalie rotation.
If you know me well, I love the grinders. Eller was on his very best game Monday. It seemed the third line was both aggressive and dangerous. Their advanced stats didn’t show well, but they popped on the eye test. Valtteri Puustinen had a hop in his step after getting benched against Buffalo. Reilly Smith and Eller worked very well together.
Harkins took a pair of minor penalties in the first period. However, he was hard on the forecheck, created several turnovers and loose pucks, and moved the boards by hitting Flyers defensemen.
Carter also had a little chip on his shoulder. He earned an assist but also could have had a greasy goal or two.
Ryan Graves: A
The big man earned some ink and some praise. He was aggressive, in the right spots, and played the type of game that was expected of him after getting a healthy contract on July 1.
He was not generally noticeable in the offensive zone, which might be a good thing. He kept it simple. He kept Nedeljkovic’s runway clear and had an assist. Call this a step forward.