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Penguins Grades: Surge, Collapse, & Emotional Win for Playoff Seed



Pittsburgh Penguins, Michael Bunting Game winner

If the Jagr bobblehead thieves also kidnapped the real Pittsburgh Penguins, they can keep them. The new version of the Penguins is feeling every bit of the momentum they’ve earned as they close on a playoff spot. In fact, after Saturday, they have the second wild-card spot.

Somehow, in Game 77, they’re getting faster. And more resilient, too.

The Penguins outskated and outplayed the Tampa Bay Lightning for the entirety of the first 40 minutes, but a third period collapse portended yet another disappointing defeat. Except this time, the Penguins rallied themselves, and Michael Bunting scored an emotional game-winner, and the Penguins earned their fourth-straight win, 5-4, over Tampa Bay Saturday afternoon.

The Penguins even survived a Tampa Bay power play in the final two minutes. With the extra attacker, it was 6v4.

“Chaotic is a great word. But we did an incredible job blocking shots. I didn’t see a lot of their shots, so I think it’s a testament — one, to their guys for getting in lanes to make it difficult for me — But also, our guys, the penalty killers, especially at the end,” goalie Alex Nedeljkovic said. “They were stepping up where we needed it and blocked shots, making it difficult for them to create offense. Especially 6v4.”

Just 10 days ago, the shovels and pitchforks were out to bury the Penguins’ season. Now, the Penguins are in a playoff spot and control their destiny. Saturday was their 31st regulation win, all but guaranteeing they win any tiebreaker with the teams also in the playoff fight.

The Penguins have points in eight straight games.

At the final horn, the Penguins ascended into the second wild-card spot. Losses by the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night would elevate the Penguins into third place in the Metro.

With five games remaining on the Penguins calendar, the Penguins are in full control of their playoff fate.

If the excitement of the playoff race wasn’t enough to get Penguins and fans hearts pumping, the stars shined brightly again.

While “the kids” or young players will figuratively get a lot of credit, it’s the Penguins’ old lions who are now roaring at full throat.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Erik Karlsson showed up with the white skates. Crosby was brilliant. Malkin was on the puck down low. Karlsson zipped shots through traffic and defended well.

Malkin scored a pair of goals and had an assist. Crosby scored the game’s first goal and hit the post in the second.

And yes, Malkin’s parents are still in town.

“Geno’s family means a lot to him, and when his parents come into town, he clearly wants to be at his best,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins’ first period was a case study in puck pressure. It wasn’t just good; it was fabulous. For 200 feet, the Penguins were hip-to-hip on the puck. The gaps were close enough that if the Tampa defensemen had anything in their teeth, the Penguins’ forwards could have seen it.

In the defensive zone, the Penguins bodied up in a man-to-man configuration. Tampa Bay had only one little spurt of offense, but the Penguins were in a good position to defend. Most of the Tampa Bay offensive zone time was spent on the walls trying to get free.

Mostly, Tampa could not.

In the first, the Penguins outshot their visitors 15-7 and had 30 attempted shots, compared to only 15 for Tampa.

The second period was more of the same. The Penguins weren’t quite as dominant, but that would have been nearly impossible. However, the Penguins traded some of their dominance for finished chances and fluky goals.

The Penguins played with speed and energy.

Xs and Os

A little note that we’ve not seen enough: On the Penguins’ hard forecheck, they also sealed the wall. Tampa Bay couldn’t just chip it off the mid-wall and out to center, nor could it station a forward at the outpost for the breakout.

The Penguins had it all covered. That’s coach Mike Sullivan’s chalkboard mastery, especially against Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. Sullivan often seems to tinker with his coverage to thwart Tampa Bay’s breakouts.

The third period devolved into a wild scene as the teams elevated the play to a near-chaotic level. The energy and intensity began to feel like the final minutes of a Game 7.

Bunting’s celebration when he scored said it all.

“We’re in a fight here. It’s fun hockey to be a part of,” Bunting said. “It’s exciting. The adrenaline is going. All of my emotions showed. I’m sure the whole rink heard me screaming.”

What the Penguins did well: They made life miserable for Tampa Bay with a very good forecheck; Tampa Bay did not get easy breakouts. The Penguins followed the good forecheck with the hungriest backcheck of the season. In the defensive zone, they were on the puck but always between the puck and the net.

In the third period, they didn’t quit. The game went sideways, and they started hitting posts instead of finishing. Malkin hit two posts, and others missed the net, while Tampa Bay scored three goals in 10 minutes.

But the Penguins doubled down rather than giving up.

It’s a new day, indeed.

“We made it exciting, eh? We want to hold those leads when we’re in them,” Bunting said. “But that’s a good hockey team over there. They know how to score. We regrouped well. We had confidence going in, and we wanted to get back to our game from the first and second (periods),”

Penguins Report Card

Team: B

This was the Penguins team they’d wanted to be all season, at least for the first 40 minutes. In Game 77, it all came together … for 40 minutes. A good forecheck. Defensemen locked down the net. The forwards defended with determination. And the team turned those defensive plays into offense.

To their credit, they rallied, but their A game turned into a B game in the third period. They needed to push back sooner.

Bunting-Malkin-Rakell: A

Perhaps a broken record. Bunting is driving the play down low. Malkin looked like an animal on the puck. That center ice gallop might be long gone, but the burst from the wall to the net is there.

Don’t overlook Rickard Rakell, either. He was especially hard on the puck and played like a gritty third-liner Saturday. He disrupted the breakouts and created numerous loose pucks.

Alex Nedeljkovic: B-

Nedeljkovic was largely untested for the first 40. He could have made a couple more saves than he did, especially in Anthony Duclair’s goal from 30 or more feet.

“On that 6v4 at the end of the game (Tampa Bay power play and extra attacker), he made a couple of big saves that, for me, is the difference between winning and losing,” Sullivan said. “That’s what he does. That’s what we love about him. He’s a fierce competitor. He just battles.”

However, as Sullivan noted, Nedeljkovic also scrambled and battled as Tampa Bay threw everything and the kitchen sink.

Defense: B+

The energy in the third period was desperation. It was the first time that frenetic energy had emerged in this building in a couple of years.

The Penguins defensemen were otherwise pretty good. Karlsson was good in the defensive zone. St. Ivany had several battles in front of the net in which he held a firm line, keeping Tampa Bay from the crease. Perhaps Marcus Pettersson was a little below his standards, but the rest of the crew was good.

Sidney Crosby

It’s his world. You stand back and watch. What he’s done in the last two weeks is merely a reminder of greatness.