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Penguins Grades: Where Has That Been?! Gritty Pens Beat Rangers



Pittsburgh Penguins Fight Rangers

Where in the world has that sort of crisp passing, skating, and dedication to defense been? The Pittsburgh Penguins have stumbled, bumbled, and only intermittently appeared to resemble the team they are on paper. With just nine games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs seemingly nothing more than the dreams during an afternoon nap.

However, the Penguins’ playoff dreams are not dead. Despite wadding up and trashing two wins in the last eight days, and despite flirting with a third on Monday, the Penguins scored a pair of empty netters and beat the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 5-2.

Sidney Crosby was just three points from tying Wayne Gretzky’s record of 19 seasons with at least a point per game. By the middle of the first period, Crosby had a pair of points and just one short of tying Gretzky’s record.

With the second empty netter, he tied the record. Crosby tied Gretzky.

The Penguins are dealing with a nasty virus running through the locker room. Announced starting goalie Tristan Jarry and defenseman John Ludvig were late scratches. Drew O’Connor not only played through the virus, but had a breakaway chance when he raced past Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller.

Coach Mike Sullivan also reconfigured the top line, which was a force for the Penguins. Sullivan put Reilly Smith on Crosby’s left, slipping O’Connor the third line with Lars Eller.

The top line scored a pair of goals in the first, including when Smith created a turnover in the Rangers zone, setting up Bryan Rust’s goal at just 18 seconds.

However,’s advanced analytics showed the Penguins stunk in the first 40 minutes. How ironic, eh? The analytics have shown the Penguins to be one of the best teams in the league despite eyeballs from coast to coast that have seen otherwise.

So, on a night when the analytics claimed they were caved in, they looked significantly better.

“There was a lot of uncertainty going into that game, and we’re in a position where we need every win, playing against a really good team and a really hard building to get wins in,” said Rust. “I thought we came out hot with the start and kept trying to push.”

Yes, this Penguins team might kill any reliance on analytics.

Penguins Analysis

So, if the analytics showed the Penguins on the wrong side of the puck, why was it 2-0? And 5-2?

What the Penguins did well: For a spell in the second period, the Penguins’ demons appeared. They were sloppy, giving up odd-man rushes and on their heels. They settled things and pushed back.

The Penguins also blocked shots like it mattered. They filled and clogged passing and shooting lanes.

What the Penguins managed to do best was a rarity this season. They managed the puck. New York has perhaps the very best transition game in the league. A mistake is an odd-man rush. A bad bounce in the offensive zone can become a jailbreak and scramble to defend.

It’s the Rangers’ superpower (and I believe the reason they’re going to struggle in the playoffs is that good teams don’t treat the puck like it’s radioactive).

Puck management. Blocked shots. Simple plays.

Who the heck were these guys?

Penguins Report Card

Team: B+

It was a gritty, hard-working game. Rickard Rakell and Marcus Pettersson dished a couple of hard hits. Sidney Crosby was dogged on the puck. Alex Nedeljkovic was a late starter after Tristan Jarry fell ill and Nedeljkovic was brilliant.

A fourth-line goal by Emil Bemstrom on a breakaway. And the power play had a couple of chances (it wasn’t great, but at this point, celebrate the little victories before nuking it this offseason).

The Penguins were a bit too passive in the second period, holding a 2-0 lead, and they gave it the Molly Hatchet try by flirting with disaster in the third. They regrouped. Held firm.

“You gotta find ways in times like these, where you have last-minute guys in and out, whatever we got to do to get wins,” Crosby said. “So that was a great team win and something that hopefully we can build off of.”

Alex Nedeljkovic: A+

A handful of sneaky good saves in the first period kept the Penguins’ lead intact. He was very good and was within an inch of keeping the Rangers’ first goal off the board with a remarkable glove save, but physics took over, and his glove crossed the line with the puck in it.

Nedeljkovic stopped 28 of 30 shots.

“He was great. As a goalie, I’m sure it’s not the first time he’s been thrown in a situation like that, but I think the importance of every game right now… that definitely tested him,” said Crosby. “He made some huge saves to keep us in it all night.”

Sidney Crosby: Yep.

You just expect this level of greatness, regardless of its rarity. Crosby was flying. Three points, two goals, so many strips, puck wins, and chances.

Bryan Rust: A

He was with Crosby, stride for stride Monday. Rust is filling the net and has 26 goals this season. He, too, was disruptive on the forecheck.

Reilly Smith: A

Smith played one of his best games this season, too. Although he wasn’t as noticeable, he was at the net, and he was on the puck. Smith was a positive contributor to the top line. He created the turnover that earned the first goal of the game.

P.O Joseph: Solid

It’s difficult to grade a defenseman right after a game. There are so many little things that could swing a grade, but Joseph stepped forward well, made crisp breakout passes, and supported his defense partner Kris Letang well. He was noticeable for the right reasons.