It wasn’t always pretty but the Pittsburgh Penguins scored early and often in the first period. The smothered the Canadiens in the third period and the Penguins are again back in a playoff spot. Sidney Crosby set up Jake Guentzel twice and scored once himself and the Penguins finished the job this time with a 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
The Penguins have held third-period leads in each of their past three games, too. Only this time the Penguins unflinchingly backchecked and clogged the defensive zone.
It also didn’t hurt that Penguins goalie Matt Murray offered more rejections than the Harvard admissions office.
“I could tell from the first shot that hit him. He looked big in net, he knew this was an important one for us,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He was playing back-to-back. It was a good challenge for him and he stood tall.”
The Penguins earned a four-goal lead with a precise offensive counter-attack. Jared McCann added a defensive presence to the Penguins top line his puck wins sprung Guentzel forward. The Penguins top line used the counter-attack to post a couple of goals and otherwise they kept their game simple: puck pressure and control.
The Penguins also well used controlled zone entries into the Montreal zone before they retreated in the second and third periods. Otherwise, the Penguins put their back(check) into their living. They didn’t need to fight to prove they were right, though Brendan Gallagher got chippy and had a couple of conversations with Erik Gudbranson.
Stick tap, Roger Daltrey. The Penguins forwards put a lot of backchecking into their living. And Gudbranson served as the Penguins spokesman when things got rough, late in the first period.
Tactically, Sullivan shuffled the lines. He put Jared McCann on Sidney Crosby’s left and switched Jake Guentzel to the right.
“We just thought playing against a team like Montreal which is a speed team, it would give (Crosby) a little bit of speed on the line,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
McCann played the “Bryan Rust role” with aplomb, though it didn’t hurt that Crosby was loaded for bear. This game was important–according to hockey statistician Micah Blake McCurdy, the winner would experience a 21 percent bump in playoff chances.
The Penguins didn’t get cute or fancy after they had a 4-0 lead. They tried to stay on the right side of the puck. They took fewer chances and focused on defense–except for the Evgeni Malkin line.