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Penguins Grades: ‘Must Win,’ Pens’ Direction Hung in the Balance



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins again faced a third period deficit, only this time, they also understood another loss could mean tying their season to cement blocks and chucking it in the Allegheny River. Another loss would have been four straight and given president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas 10 days to think about their future.

The Penguins finally found their desperation, if not a little bit of fear, and rallied to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in overtime at PPG Paints Arena.

“It’s huge. I can’t (shakes his head). This was like the most important game of the season in a lot of ways,” said Lars Eller, who played in his 1000th NHL game. “It’s not like we were out of it if we lose, but I feel like this was a kind of a must-win game. We didn’t play our best. I thought we played some great hockey in the last month. Not so much the last three games, but good teams — They find a way to get points.”

Badly needing a hero, the Penguins relied on their Superman. Sidney Crosby made yet another unbelievable pass to set up the tying goal midway through the third period.

The Penguins’ best defenseman this season, Marcus Pettersson, was the final hero as the light-scoring blue liner ripped a top-shelf wrister in overtime for the winner.

Yes, the Penguins flirted with disaster. They even exchanged numbers and made a date.

The Penguins trailed the wild card teams by about six points and generally have three games in hand. They must win those games to get back in the playoff race, and after a shootout loss on Friday, the Penguins’ winning percentage was no better than 10th in the Eastern Conference.

A loss wouldn’t have mathematically eliminated them by any means, but it would have put them firmly on the outside of the race and required another lengthy stretch of wins and points to overcome their recent failure.

Instead, they won.

If you thought the players blissfully unaware of the stakes and how late in the season it is becoming to trail a playoff spot, you’d be mistaken. They knew.

Why they didn’t have their best at the beginning of the game, or even well into the second period, is another matter for coach Mike Sullivan and Dubas.

In that circumstance (an emotional game the night before), with investment like we had last night (a 3-2 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers), it is a challenge. And I thought our guys competed hard,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think we had a ton of juice at the start of the game, and they got better as the game went on, which is the irony of it; you’d think it would be the other way around with having played last night.

“I thought our third period was our best. I just give the guys a lot of credit. I think we’ve got a character group.”

Dubas told TSN earlier in the week he needed more time to evaluate his team and decide on a direction before the March 8 NHL trade deadline. Dubas said his players would decide for him.

For much of the game, it appeared the Penguins had submitted their resignation until the reality hit them like a Jacob Trouba elbow.

A loss would have all but portended the end. A win revived hopes this team can figure it out.

It was that big. A season might have come down to 25 minutes.

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins came to life late in the second period, though their power plays were a tale of two units. Sullivan put the units in a Yahtzee cup and came up with interesting mixes.

One worked. One absolutely did not. In fact, Evgeni Malkin was caught on camera, emotionally animated after a late second-period power play shift.

Sullivan put Malkin with Erik Karlsson, Rickard Rakell, Jeff Carter, and Lars Eller as the “top” unit.

Sullivan put Kris Letang with Crosby, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, and Valtteri Puustinen as the “1A” unit.

Crosby played the mid-wall and cycled high. The unit was far more effective than the Karlsson unit. In fact, the Karlsson unit struggled mightily in two chances.

“I thought Sid’s unit had a lot of looks. They had some energy. They had some juice,” Sullivan said. “I thought they had a lot of looks. As far as where it goes moving forward, we’re going to have to make decisions accordingly. We decided to split the groups for obvious reasons.”

On the Xs and O’s chalkboard, you may have noticed a couple of wrinkles from each team. The Penguins eased up on the aggressive forecheck in order to create neutral zone traffic. Sullivan admitted it was a deliberate attempt to nullify Montreal’s outside speed and rush game.

The Canadiens stacked the front of their net. It wasn’t uncommon to see three players near the net. They were happy to cede the top of the zone in exchange for the low zone.

Both tactics worked.

The Penguins’ spotty blue line showed again to be mistake-prone. The number of zone coverage errors by Ryan Graves was too many. His defensive partner Karlsson was far too loose with his puck decisions.

The traction Graves had achieved has again been erased by playing with Karlsson.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B-

They didn’t submit a team-wide competent effort. The Penguins continue to be a mishmash of players playing poorly and others picking up the slack.

With an uneven team, every mistake by the top players, such as Pettersson’s first-period coverage mistake, is magnified.

Take the positive that they saw their season flash before their eyes. The negatives will remain, however. We’ve got 10 days to pick apart the ghastly mistakes that have haunted the Penguins. Perhaps Dubas will arrive in the Mystery Machine during the break to solve one or two of those obvious mysteries.

Power Play: B+/F

Letang/Crosby — B+. No goals but lots of energy and pressure. If the power play were that competent this season, the Penguins would have three or four more wins.

Karlsson/Malkin — F. They were flat. Ineffective. And Malkin came off the ice from their last opportunity, cursing the heavens or someone else. He was calling for a pass to launch a one-timer, but Karlsson tried to outskate the penalty-killers at the top of the zone but turned it over.

Expect to see the first group or a close variation take the bulk of power play time after the break. Egos be damned.

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust: B+

It was a bit of a down game for them, though they were the primary drivers of the offensive chances, if not the only ones. Crosby’s no-look, spinning backhand pass to set up the tying goal would be a career highlight if it weren’t the 10,000th time he’d made jaws drop with something we’d not seen before.

Evgeni Malkin

His game progressed from an F in the first period to a solid B in the third. Take that for what you will. Like the rest of his team, Malkin clearly grasped the gravity of the situation.

Graves-Karlsson: Danger Zone.

I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve got four bad marks in my game notebook from them, plays that were inexplicably bad. Graves went to the wrong post once, allowing Montreal to get a couple of whacks at goalie Tristan Jarry. Graves deflected Montreal’s second goal past Jarry.

Karlsson’s stretch passes to nowhere, or Canadien’s sticks were not a thing of beauty. His power play work was also well below par.

He’s much better than this.

Other Performances to Like

Lars Eller. The Dane played his 1000th game. He was rock solid with a splash of offense.

Valtteri Puustinen. After a few weeks of invisibility, he’s feeling the pressure and responding well. Puustinen had some real hop and made some things happen.

P.O Joseph had a good third period, too. He joined the rush a couple of times. He’s been far too quiet. That was a nice sight.

Colin White continued his strong play. He’s added an element of speed and responsibility to the Malkin line. I also see him taking some of the center role from Malkin.

Jeff Carter showed up in the offensive zone a few times, and the fourth line was prominent during the comeback. Noel Acciari delivered one of his biggest hits of the season after the Penguins tied the game. Jansen Harkins gave and took a few gloves to the face at the net.

Tristan Jarry stopped 25 of 27 and was a solid backstop.