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Penguins Grades: Unbelievable. Nedeljkovic, ‘Gutsy’ Pens Fight Back



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby

The spirit was there, but the legs were weary. The goal was about hanging on, more so than winning. The Pittsburgh Penguins were playing their third game in four days against a faster, well-rested New Jersey Devils.

The first and second periods looked exactly as you might expect as the older, slower Penguins played the previous night. However, like a movie script, the haggard-looking Penguins rose to the challenge in the third period, scoring five goals, including a power-play goal and Sidney Crosby’s empty netter for an improbable, respect-earning 6-3 win over New Jersey at the Prudential Center.

Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic earned a New York City steak dinner for his extraordinary effort. Playing in both games of the back-to-back, Nedeljkovic was spectacular. He stopped 23 of 26, but he stole more than a couple of sure goals from New Jersey, buying the Penguins enough time to find their legs.

Oh, and there’s a virus running through the Penguins’ locker room, claiming a few players, including goalie Tristan Jarry and defenseman John Ludvig.

The Penguins overcame it all.

“I think (it was) just desperation. I think we knew it was going to be an uphill climb, but it was good to get one on the power play,” Crosby said. “(Erik Karlsson) made a great play to keep that play alive and give us a chance.”

Better late than never. Both in the game and this season.


The Washington Capitals lost, moving the Penguins to within three points with one more game played. The Penguins also moved to within four points of the Philadelphia Flyers with one game in hand.

The Penguins hung on long enough. For once this season, when a goaltender stole a game, and dozens of scoring chances were for naught, it was the Penguins on the winning end.

“I thought it was a gutsy effort by our guys. We could tell early on that we didn’t have a lot of energy. We just we just didn’t have a lot of juice tonight,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “It was one of those nights where you play against the schedule a little bit. That game last night, New York, took a lot out of our guys. Give our players a lot of credit. We just hung in there, and we dug in. I thought the power play in the third period gave us some life. You could just feel it on the bench, and we took off from there.”

For 40 minutes, New Jersey turned every loose puck into an odd-man rush. In the first 15 minutes, it seemed there was an endless string of three-on-two breaks.

The Penguins lived dangerously, needling desperate lunges by defensemen (Jack St. Ivany, P.O Joseph, Marcus Pettersson) and a few defensive saves by Nedeljkovic.

In fact, St. Ivany busted up a three-on-one in the first period.

Nedeljkovic made his sixth straight start and earned a seventh straight start, if not more. His shoulders got a workout as New Jersey had time and space to shoot for the corners, and Nedeljkovic needed both shoulder pads as he moved laterally to keep New Jersey from running up the score.

For most of 45 minutes, the Penguins didn’t get inside the Devils’ defense … until they reeled off five goals in just over 10 minutes in the third.

They were exhausted, old, and out of it … until they weren’t. It was almost worthy of an uplifting John Williams musical score.

They were stuck to the outside and there was always a New Jersey defender (or forward) between them and the goal. The second period was a further decline of the Penguins game. They limited odd-man rushes, but they had no legs to keep up.

They tried.

“There was really no panic. We played desperate hockey (in the) last few games, and so we knew that we’re just going to continue to play desperate and you … get a couple of bounces, and we knew things would work out,” St. Ivany said.

And then Crosby scored his 38th goal of the year on the power play. A power-play goal?! For perhaps the first time this season, the Penguins’ power play lifted the Penguins’ emotions, leading to good things.

St. Ivany earned his first NHL point on Evgeni Malkin’s deflection (the Penguins’ third goal). He played with recalled Ryan Shea on the third pairing.

And 36-year-old Crosby closed the door with an empty netter, his 39th goal, sandwiching a pair of goals by Malkin and one by Rickard Rakell.

With everything on the table, the old lions were the heroes, as they’ve been so many times before.

Penguins Grades

Team: Warrior Respect

The Penguins had 10 shots over the first 40 minutes but attempted 38. They couldn’t take the extra step or find the lane because the Devils were a step quicker and able to claim the position.

Coach Mike Sullivan spread out the minutes evenly through the lineup, but there was little to no energy, even from the young players such as Valtteri Puustinen.

Credit the Penguins. They didn’t collapse, nor did they quit, but the NHL schedule makers doled out this loss well in advance. (I wrote that line before the third period explosion and figured it should remain for context). And the Penguins somehow found enough.

“I don’t know that I’ve experienced what we’ve experienced the last couple of nights with some of the guys getting sick the way they did and just finding ways to compete and play through it,” Sullivan said. “It’s a real good feeling. I’m happy for them … I’m happy that they get some fulfillment out of these wins, and we give ourselves a chance to play meaningful hockey. So we’re real proud of this group.”

Alex Nedeljkovic: $,$$$,$$$

Nedeljkovic was money. He won both ends of back-to-backs, and it was the first time in six years since a Penguins goalie did so (Tristan Jarry). This stretch is raising Nedeljkovic’s stock to starting goalie value. He’s red hot at the best time of year, and make no mistake, he stole a game.

Move over, Alex Lyon.

Other Performances to Like

Sidney Crosby. He wasn’t great in the first 40 minutes, but when there was a loose puck to knock into the net, guess who?

Evgeni Malkin. His first goal was an unteachable deflection that 99 of 100 players couldn’t do. As Malkin rose in the third, so, too, did the Penguins.

P.O Joseph. A second consecutive strong game. He stepped forward in the offensive zone and was back in the defensive zone. He was moving the puck and skating well.

Erik Karlsson. Don’t overlook how many breakouts he started with his smooth skating and effortless change of direction. New Jersey sent the forecheck to close it out, and several times in the third period, Karlsson beautifully sidestepped his forechecker and moved the play up the ice by skating it or passing.