The Pittsburgh Penguins demonstrated their better instincts and flashed their flaws in a narrow escape from disaster Monday when they blew a 3-0 lead to the Minnesota Wild but rallied for a 4-3 win at PPG Paints Arena.
Make no mistake, they were ashamed of their performance on Saturday in a 7-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. That word came directly from Kris Letang on Sunday as the team tried to regroup from an utterly embarrassing loss on national TV that included cameras catching the president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas uttering a string of obscenities in exasperation.
Coach Mike Sullivan called that experience humbling.
Defenseman Erik Karlsson called out his team after the game, from top to bottom, for being happy to be in the NHL or just going through the motions.
Saturday, the Penguins had all of the resistance of a watermelon to Gallagher’s sledge-o-matic (that’s an 80’s comic reference for my millennial and Z friends).
It seemed like absolute zero, rock bottom, and the lowest of lows.
Yet, for most of the game Monday, the Penguins were able to find a version of their game that was not great but good enough to win.
I thought it best to pose the mental “how” question to Sullivan Monday night, and his answer is something along the lines of what you’d probably hope. A few players got a good talking to.
Sunday at practice, Sullivan made a significant change with his defense pairings, putting struggling Ryan Graves with the offensively dynamic Karlsson and stellar Marcus Pettersson with Letang. The team practiced for just 18 minutes, but it seems the bulk of the work was done off the ice.
Through the course of the game, the new players hit the score sheet. Reilly Smith scored his first goal since Dec. 8. Valtteri Puustinen had two assists, but it was Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby who scored the rest of the goals.
Scoring winger Rickard Rakell and energy grinder Noel Acciari returned to the lineup, each after missing a few weeks, further aiding the Penguins lineup in what the team can only hope was their darkest hour.
Pittsburgh Penguins Locker Room
The Penguins bench boss offered rightful praise for Valtteri Puustinen, who had two assists and was a catalyst throughout the game, usually for good. He was also non-committal but generally positive about his new defensive pairings.
However, the important question regarding the story of the 2023-24 Penguins was: how did they get from there to here?
“I wouldn’t say there were a lot of conversations. There were a couple of candid ones,” said Sullivan. “And as I said to you guys after the game, we’re in this thing together, the coaches and the players, and there’s a partnership there. And we’ve got to figure it out. We’ve got to do our part as a coaching staff to bring some solutions to the table.
“We’ve just got to play (Penguins’ hockey) more consistently, and then we’ve got to hold one another accountable to it. So, there were a couple of conversations with the group. But what I’ll tell you is I think we have terrific leadership. I think we have a veteran team. No one likes to go through the experience that we went through in Toronto. That’s a humbling experience for all of us. And I was pleased that we responded the right way.”
His breakdown of the pairs and what the Penguins game should look like begins around 2:10. The quotes above about leadership and a few hard conversations begin around 3:35.
The 23-year-old winger is a palate cleanser. He was a seventh-round draft pick. He has toiled in the AHL for a couple of seasons, improving his English enough to communicate with coaches and teammates without an interpreter.
He’s been a striking addition to the Penguins’ on-ice product and the room, though even he laughed at a question about his chemistry with linemate Evgeni Malkin.
The backup goalie gave the best description of the Penguins’ game and what they did well to get the three-goal lead. Even though Nedeljkovic is from Cleveland (we kid, we kid), it’s usually an interesting and enjoyable couple of minutes when “Ned” speaks.
From the Xs and Os breakdown to cracking jokes about his attempt to score his fourth professional empty netter and first in the NHL, Nedeljkovic exemplified the fresh air in the Penguins’ locker room.
“It was going bardown,” he exclaimed.