The Montreal Canadiens were said to be desperate. The bleu, blanc en rouge trail the Philadelphia Flyers by 10 points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot and time is quickly slipping away. The NHL trade deadline is also less than two weeks away, but instead, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Canadiens tiptoed to the action before Jason Zucker scored a pair of goals and the Penguins cruised to a 4-1 win at PPG Paints Arena.
Montreal is now almost hopelessly out of the playoff chase. They trail Philadelphia by 10 points, and Philadelphia has two games in hand. Montreal has just 22 games left.
There were a combined 14 shots in the first period, and only a few were high-pressure shots. Otherwise, the goalies were treated to some downtime as the first period became a feeling-out process. In the second period, the storylines finally emerged as newbie Zucker potted his first (15), then his second goal (16) as a Penguin.
“I thought his speed was more noticeable tonight. You can see how good he is on the transition when the play transition when the puck changes from defensive to offense,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “His ability to create separation and jump into windows of opportunity and we’ve got guys who can get him the puck.”
Yes. Yes, the Penguins do have a couple of pretty good centers.
Eventually, the Penguins aggressive attacks and talent put an arrow through Montreal late in the second period. The Penguins also asserted themselves early in the third period to remove any doubt about the outcome.
“It’s big to take advantage of these games, the out of (division) games. Every team in our division is winning, so any time you can snatch two points up against another (division) is pretty big,” said Zach Aston-Reese, who scored the empty-net goal.
“It’s a lot easier when there’s no goalie there,” he joked. “It’s nice that Coach trusts us in those situations.”
Structurally, the Penguins did establish a baseline in puck possession and a forecheck with a simple and sometimes forgotten tactic.