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Penguins Grades: ‘Not Always Pretty,’ Crosby Wills Team to Survive



Pittsburgh Penguins game analysis, Sidney Crosby, Rickard Rakell, Erik Karlsson

BOSTON — The opening minutes were firewagon hockey between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins. The mistakes piled up as fast as the highlight plays by great players and some bottom-six types, too. As the lengthy delay on the ESPN telecast kept viewers more than a minute behind the action, social media let them know there was a goal coming.

And more goals were coming. The Penguins and Bruins combined for five goals in the first 7:21 of the game, but the Penguins couldn’t tighten the screws after earning a 5-2 lead in the second period.

Their power play again faceplanted, allowing a shorthanded goal by Brad Marchand, tying the game 5-5 early in the third period. However, the Penguins rallied for an improbable 6-5  win over the Bruins at TD Garden Thursday.

After gaining the three-goal lead, the waves were crashing around the Penguins, and they rested on the cusp of a disastrous loss. The Penguins are facing difficult odds to claim a playoff spot, and every loss only digs that muddy hole deeper. They failed to come back from a four-goal deficit against Washington on Tuesday, and a second straight loss could have flung them four points back of a playoff spot.

Instead, their captain Sidney Crosby not only scored the winning goal- a power play goal later in the third period- but he also willed them forward when stomachs were tightening. When Boston pressed for the tying goal with the extra attacker, it was Crosby who won the race for the cleared puck, negating an icing call. He killed 16 of the final 30 seconds with the extra effort.

That’s 36-year-old Crosby, complete with a yellowing black eye and a team on his back.

“He’s the heartbeat of our team. He’s the guy that is the standard bearer, and when the stakes are high, I think that’s when he’s at his best, and he does a lot of the little things that help us,” coach Mike Sullivan said of Crosby. “The offense speaks for itself — his ability to score goals and create for his linemates — but a lot of the little things that he does on the defensive side, whether it’s winning faceoffs, blocking shots, or negating icing … It’s things like that that add up to winning. I think he leads the charge for our team.”

Read More: Get Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap here.

Get the Bruins Postgame takeaways here, including Brad Marchand’s effusive Crosby praise. 

There was an odd vibe from the opening puck drop, and the game lived up to the wild beginning in which Boston scored on the first shift after a Penguins scoring chance. Instead of the game getting away from the Penguins, they played some of their best hockey.

Followed by some of their worst hockey.

Followed by some disjointed hockey. And finishing by doing whatever they needed to do, including a game-saving shot block by Marcus Pettersson when Boston had the extra attacker.

“They did a good job of controlling pucks and trying to wait for that good look,” Alex Nedeljkovic said. “They threw a couple across the crease that they just didn’t connect and got a couple of good looks. They got some shots with some traffic, and I think (Pettersson) did a great job. I didn’t see it. I was looking the other way like I was all night, and Petey did a great job of coming up big for me at the end there.”

Several Penguins players submitted perhaps their best game of the season or one of their best, but the Penguins’ three-goal second-period lead never felt safe.

The heralded Penguins goaltending took a step back with a second consecutive spotty performance by the starting goalie. Tristan Jarry got the hook early in the game against the Washington Capitals. Nedeljkovic allowed a couple or a few lit lamps Thursday that could have been stopped, too.

The win was necessary to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. The Philadelphia Flyers gained a point with an OT loss in Columbus. The Tampa Bay Lightning won, as did the New York Islanders over the Arizona Coyotes. The Penguins remained in the six-team gaggle, battling for a divisional spot or the two wild cards.

Penguins Analysis

The fallout from a second consecutive loss and a blown three-goal lead could have been a knee-buckling right hook that dispirited the Penguins, taking them out of the playoff race.

However, they know a guy.

Sidney Crosby, who was named to the All-Star team Thursday, was on point. The Penguins top line put a couple in the net and just missed a few more. Crosby had Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman sprawled on the ice but couldn’t settle the puck to shoot it. Jake Guentzel took some paint off the post on a breakaway.

Crosby had two assists and the game-winner.

“I think it was just a matter of a little bit of room — they don’t always go in the back of the net, but for some reason they did tonight,” Crosby said. ‘You just have to be able to handle that and keep going.”

The Penguins were able to generate offense against the notoriously stingy Bruins with a couple of tactics. The team was aggressive on the transition, which created a battle at the top of the zone with the aggressive Bruins defense. Boston wanted to hold the offensive line, but the Penguins didn’t panic by blindly throwing the vulcanized rubber off the glass to center ice.

Instead, the Penguins softly chipped the puck off the wall behind the defenseman and won the race for it, creating a speed rush through center ice.

The Penguins grinders were especially good at getting after the puck, though not so good at holding their zone responsibilities. They jumped the puck in the defensive zone, creating speed out of their zone, too.

All of it resulted in scoring chances that they buried. Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman was shaky, but how many times have the Penguins let shaky goalies off the hook or allowed them to build confidence by not converting?

The Penguins’ defense was again a mixed bag of brilliant nullifications and bewildering gaffes. The Bruins have a few good players, too. David Pastrnak, who is also an All-Star, made a few Penguins defenders look silly. He also scored a goal and had three points.

Grading the Penguins’ Lines

Before we get to the lines, a note of several standout performances. Marcus Pettersson, who has been a rock this season, was superb. He nullified many Bruins rushes and scoring chances, including that shot block late in the third period.

Drew O’Connor had a magnificent game, too. He charged on the forecheck and played like a power forward. O’Connor had two points (1-1-2), including a goal, but could have had more as Boston goalie Jeremy Swayman stopped his shorthanded breakaway and the two-on-none break with Lars Eller. O’Connor would get a couple of pluses on his report card.

From there, the Penguins were a mixed bag of results.

Guentzel-Crosby-Rakell: A

They scored twice and otherwise generated offensive chances from start to finish. They exploited Boston’s mistakes and forced them into more. According to, the line had six high-danger chances but yielded just two against the top Bruins line.

Smith-Malkin-Rust: F

This line has a lot more to give, but they’re getting very little production. Malkin was visibly playing hard, but the line generated almost nothing despite the goal lights going off around them. They were on the ice for two goals against, both of which featured spotty D-zone coverage.

Reilly Smith has only two goals since that Nov. 4 beatdown of the San Jose Sharks, 10-2. Two goals in 25 games. He’s not even getting good looks right now.

Bryan Rust will have a few ups and downs as he reacclimates to the lineup, though effort will never be an issue. He had three takeaways as part of the Penguins attack.

O’Connor-Eller-Puustinen: A+

O’Connor had one of his best games ever. He was a force. He was disruptive on the forecheck. Held the puck to make the proper plays. And he used his speed.

Lars Eller is just steady in all facets. He and O’Connor were especially good Thursday. The line generated three goals at even strength. They didn’t dominate, but they were effective, perhaps the Penguins’ best line.

Harkins-Acciari-Carter: A

Sullivan said it best:

“I think they’re an invaluable line for us. We put them in a lot of tough spots. They get a lot of D-zone starts, and a lot of times, it’s against top players. I think (Jansen Harkins) is learning how to play with “Cookie” and “Carts,” using speed and getting in on the forecheck … I think “Cookie” and “Carts” just have a great awareness and understanding of how to play away from the puck and how to defend. And I also think they’re cherishing the role.”

Penguins Defense: C

Ryan Graves had a goal and some bobbles. Kris Letang was very good but got undressed by Marchand on the tying goal, as well as straying too far from the net on Jake DeBrusk’s goal (Boston’s fourth). Erik Karlsson had a similar night — a couple of brilliant plays but a couple of plays in the defensive zone that were very avoidable.

P.O Joseph submitted his second straight workman effort. His blue line-keep late in the first period set up the sequence that led to Eller’s goal.

Alex Nedeljkovic: Get ‘Em Next Time?

That wasn’t Nedeljkovic’s best game. After a string of good games, like Jarry, Nedeljkovic had a rough night. Perhaps you got his self-effacing quote regarding Pettersson saving his bacon in the final minute.

Team Grade: B

How does a teacher grade a game in which there are exemplary performances and head-scratching gaffes? In the end, the Pittsburgh Penguins won.

“They scored on the first shift, they scored shorthanded, and then they were on top of us to start third period. It can be hard to just stay positive and stay with it,” said Nedeljkovic. “And I thought we did a great job of that all night. We kept going and kept taking it to them, and we responded the right way every single time they scored. So that’s huge. That’s how you want to see it. It’s not always going to be pretty.”