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Penguins Grades: ‘Resilient’ Win, 3 Players Who Rose to Challenge



P.O Joseph, Lars Eller, Pittsburgh Penguins game

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The handmade cardboard sign was taped above the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room door. It said only two words, “All In.”

The Penguins earned a hard-fought win and one that shines a bright, positive light on the team, who beat the NHL-leading Vancouver Canucks 4-3 in overtime at Rogers Arena.

If there’s a gold-star win this season, beating Vancouver at Rogers Arena without the Penguins’ two top wingers would be it. The Penguins became just the fifth team this season to take one from Vancouver when trailing in the third period.

“(I’m) real proud of them. I thought we had a certain resilience about us all night long. We get down a couple of goals, we stayed with it,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “We just kept competing. And I think we’re capable of coming back in games, and tonight was evidence against a really good team.”

The Penguins overcame a 2-0 deficit and erased a third-period deficit before Erik Karlsson converted a rebound for the Penguins’ third straight win. The victory closed them to within seven points of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second wild-card spot, but the Penguins also have five games in hand.

Earlier Tuesday, PHN put forth the Penguins’ challenge. Without Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel, the team had to show it had the heart to compete shorthanded and overcome the adversity. Otherwise, there would be no point in saving the team from the scattering winds of the NHL trade deadline.

They passed their first test with flying colors.

A few players rose to that challenge, including Karlsson, who flashed that Hall of Fame talent with the puck and even threw a few hits. Karlsson was aggressive with the puck, controlling the offensive zone from all pressure points like a puppeteer pulling the strings of the other nine players.

Sullivan couldn’t help but offer the highest praise for Karlsson.

“I thought he really stepped up tonight. I thought he was an impact player for us,” Sullivan said. “When you see him take his game to that level, that’s the game that I think we all get excited about.”

However, the Penguins’ game wasn’t without a few eye rolls.

The wall between the Penguins’ problems and their best game remains leaky. Plug one hole and it seems two more leaks spring. The Penguins played well, and largely a tough, honest game, but special teams continue to harpoon their chances.

Fighting to stay in the game in the first period, the Penguins allowed a power play goal to fall behind 2-0. After scoring a 5v3 power-play goal in the second period, the Penguins followed up that success by flexing their power-play ineptitude when J.T. Miller chipped the puck past point-man Kris Letang for a breakaway goal.

The goal gave the Canucks a 3-2 lead and erased all of the hard work to that point. If that were the deciding goal, this analysis would read far differently. Scolding might have become outright condemnation.

But the Penguins showed the heart that they’re going to need for the next several weeks.

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins also won the goaltending battle. Hometown boy Tristan Jarry had some stops, including a diving stop on Tyler Myers (whose game is worlds better than it has been in past years).

The three players who elevated their games were Karlsson, Valtteri Puustinen, and Drew O’Connor. All three were intense. O’Connor and Puustinen chased pucks, pressured Vancouver, and created offense. Their cycle game for an entire shift created the lane for Lars Eller to tie the game at 9:45 of the third period.

They just kept working … and working … like the team’s future was at stake. It was the type of desperation that should make Penguins fans who stayed up for the game happy. It was a pretty good birthday present for Sullivan.

“I thought they were terrific. They work really with (Evgeni Malkin). I think that line has a lot of opportunities and a lot of O-zone time,” Sullivan said. “And (Puustinen and O’Connor) are a big part of that. They hunt pucks. They’re quick to pucks, they’re on top of pucks, and they have good hockey sense that they can play with (Malkin). And they’re dragging G into the fight down low.”

Yes, the Canucks are a very good team. They have Elias Pettersson, Miller, and a deep supporting cast with good goaltending by Thatcher Demko.

What the Penguins did well: When they got the chance, they cycled hard, forcing Vancouver to defend in the low zone. The Penguins were aggressive to the pucks and played with intent.

They had 40 shots, including a whopping six in overtime, but only 18 scoring chances at 5v5, according to They kept the pressure on Vancouver without going long stretches of defending. The shot volume tells you they had the puck in the offensive zone, but it was contested ice.

They also stayed above the puck. With Karlsson dancing with the puck around the offensive zone, there was a great temptation for four sticks to join the play, but almost universally, the Penguins forwards cycled high and covered. Karlsson is better than most forwards, so it was an upgrade to the offensive attack.

However, don’t mistake Karlsson’s game for reckless or risky. It was not.

With Karlsson playing to that level, the Penguins had better zone entries, and other things sprang forth. They were able to open lanes for headman passes and short connecting breakouts.

The Penguins also pressured Vancouver.

It was a great game to watch. Very well played by both sides.

What the Penguins didn’t do well: Vancouver had their moments, too. Karlsson felt the Penguins didn’t hold onto enough pucks and gave away some opportunities. He’s partially right — there were plenty of aimless chips into the zone by the fourth line, who then chased with desire. There were mistakes and a few turnovers that could have been dangerous.

“They controlled the puck a lot. They were cycling on us,” Karlsson said. “We had some good shifts from time to time, but we didn’t really hang onto enough pucks … even when you don’t have your best sometimes, everybody stuck with it.”

And special teams. There was a unique configuration after the shorty, as Reilly Smith took the point and Karlsson rotated to the midwall and the bumper position. Karlsson looked confident. Smith … maybe not.

Penguins Report Card

The Penguins earned every bit of the two points. Out here in the fields, the Penguins fought for their meals. They got their back into their living (Baba O’Riley is the Canucks pregame song. And I’m down for that).

There are some bad grades here, too. The effervescent effort shouldn’t erase some subpar performances.

Team: A

As Karlsson said to me after his media scrum, they flew across the country, it’s late, and not every game will be a gem. He liked my term “honest effort,” and that’s what I’m sticking with. Honest efforts can overcome a lot, and quite frankly, I’m a bit impressed with the Penguins’ effort on Tuesday.

Jarry: A

Very good. He stopped pucks. You need more analysis?

O’Connor and Puustinen: A+

Puustinen really deserves some credit. His game is light years better than it was during his first call-up earlier this season. He’s playing both ends of the ice, and he’s getting his nose dirty over the puck. He’s also a zippy player with energy. He’s fun to watch.

O’Connor is all over the ice. He wants that puck.

Sidney Crosby – Rickard Rakel: A-

Sullivan set the town early by putting the Sidney Crosby line on the ice in two of the first three shifts of the game. Vancouver scored with Nils Hoglander and gave Crosby the slip in the first period. However, the Crosby line created as many scoring chances as the rest of the team.

Reilly Smith: C

We didn’t mark Smith as contributing enough to the line. He had one shot in the first 40 minutes, compared to four each for Crosby and Rakell. It’s a fine line between unwarranted criticism for not contributing enough and piling on. If there’s a moment for Smith to step forward for this team, now is it.

Erik Karlsson: A

That’s why president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas wanted Karlsson. It was for nights like this. Karlsson’s inclusion in the play changed the dynamic of the Penguins offense. He’s impressive when he’s playing like that.

Chad Ruhwedel-Ryan Graves: D

The pair really struggled. The Canucks got to them. Ruhwedel had one nightmarish shift but some shaky plays. So, too, did Graves, whose habit of wandering from the net at the wrong times nearly cost the Penguins a backbreaking goal six minutes into the second period.