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Penguins Six-Pack: Nedeljkovic’s Mess; Power-Play Positives?



Adam Pelech Brock Nelson Kyle Palmieri

Give the Pittsburgh Penguins this: They didn’t quit.

Of course, they didn’t win, either.

They did, however, manage to score twice in a 56-second span with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation to take the New York Islanders to overtime at PPG Paints Arena Tuesday night.

That was enough to earn them one point when defenseman Adam Pelech scored 57 seconds into the extra period to give the Islanders a 5-4 victory.

“It’s a tough one,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Disappointing, because I thought our team competed really hard. Some of the ebbs and flows of the game, certain things didn’t go our way. A couple of the (New York) goals were fluky. I just thought our guys kept competing. … I thought our guys had an inspired effort.”

At times, anyway.

There also were times, like when New York accounted for seven of the first eight shots in the game, and when the Islanders piled up three unanswered goals in less than 10 minutes during the second period, when the Penguins didn’t seem to have any particular focus or energy.

Still, rallying the way they did during the second half of the third period was a plus.

“We have to take that with us, that we responded in a really good way,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson said.

They also have to realize that they are now eight points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, with a dwindling number of games-in-hand. Which is why they can’t dwell on how the final score took some of the luster off their comeback.

“Take the point, and move on,” Sidney Crosby said. “We need points.”

1. Making a mess

Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic didn’t hesitate to point the finger at the guy he held responsible for the Islanders’ victory.


“The last two goals, I just got beat,” he said. “That’s not good enough. That’s really all it is. I just got beat.”

Pelech got the game-winner by beating Nedeljkovic on an unscreened shot from the slot.

“I saw it the whole way,” Nedeljkovic said “I just missed it.”

The game-winner came on New York’s 33rd shot. Nedeljkovic stopped 28 of them.

“We deserved two points,” he said. “We deserved to win in regulation. I (messed) the bed. Just kind of dropped the ball.”

2. Blue-line shakeup

Sullivan overhauled his defense pairings for the New York game.

John Ludvig was scratched and P.O Joseph, a healthy scratch for three of the previous four games, worked alongside Kris Letang on the top pairing.

Marcus Pettersson dropped down to the No. 2 pairing, with Erik Karlsson, and Ryan Graves was demoted to the third pair, alongside Chad Ruhwedel.

Joseph played just 14:45, less than any Penguins defenseman except Ruhwedel (11:25), but acquitted himself fairly well and was not on the ice for any New York goals.

Pettersson, meanwhile, opened the scoring for the Penguins, but was on for the Islanders’ first three goals, including one when Brock Nelson sliced past him before throwing a backhander by Nedeljkovic.

“I can’t be reaching there on that goal,” Pettersson said. “I gave him way too good of a look.”

3. More power to them

The Penguins failed to score on three power plays — the 10th time in the past 14 games they’ve been unable to get a goal with the man-advantage — and generated just five shots against the NHL’s lowest-rated penalty-kill during those six minutes.

They spent much, if not most, of their time with the extra man passing the puck around the perimeter, and did little to make life difficult for New York goalie Ilya Sorokin.

Sullivan, though, professed to have seen some positive things when the Penguins had a man-advantage.

“They had some really good looks,” he said. “We didn’t score. They made some plays. We had a significant amount of offensive-zone time. … Some of the plays that were made — we had a couple of backdoor plays — those types of looks are high-quality looks. They got a handful of those tonight, and I think that’s something to build on.”

Of course, part of the reason the Penguins spent so much time in the New York end was that they were so passive and content to move the puck around far from the net that the Islanders had no reason to try to force the issue.

4. Praise for Puustinen

Valtteri Puustinen seems to enjoy playing against the Islanders.

He’s done it three times now, and he has two goals — the only ones he has scored in the NHL — and two assists to show for it.

He played right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Reilly Smith and accounted for four of the Penguins’ 41 shots on Sorokin in just 12:43 of ice time. Puustinen, a healthy scratch for the Penguins’ 2-1 loss to Los Angeles Sunday, did enough to elicit a positive evaluation from Sullivan.

“I thought he played well,” Sullivan said. “He was a significant part of the two comeback goals. He was in the middle of those. I thought he was forechecking well. I think he has good poise with the puck. He has good offensive instincts. There’s an element of offense in him that’s untapped, that we haven’t tapped into yet.

“He’s picked up a step, footspeed-wise. That is really evident to me, and I think that will help him moving forward. His learning curve has been steep, and I think he’s getting better with every game he plays. I thought he had a real strong game.”

5. Striking a balance

The Penguins scored four goals, despite not getting anything that registered on the scoreboard from the No. 1 line of Crosby, Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust.

Eller’s line, which included Reilly Smith and Puustinen, scored twice and Evgeni Malkin’s unit got one.

That’s the kind of offensive diversity the Penguins have sought, but rarely received, in 2023-24.

“To get the types of contributions through our lineup — not just scoring goals, but helping us get momentum, offensive-zone time, hanging onto pucks and things of that nature — I thought all of the lines contributed in that regard,” Sullivan said. “I thought Lars Eller’s line had a real strong night. I thought (Malkin’s) line had some (offensive-)zone time. Sid’s always does.

“When you get production through your lineup like that, that’s certainly encouraging. If we continue to do that, we’re going to win games.”

6. Is Roy Islanders’ answer?

The Islanders are one of the many teams the Penguins would have to overtake to claim a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and New York’s victory made that hill a bit steeper.

New York’s playoff prospects were sufficiently poor a few weeks ago that GM Lou Lamoriello fired coach Lane Lambert and replaced him with Patrick Roy.

The Islanders haven’t necessarily surged under Roy’s direction, however.

Tuesday was the second game in a row in which they faded during the third period — the Islanders allowed two goals in the final four-plus minutes of regulation in what became a 6-5 overtime loss to the New York Rangers Sunday — and they are just 4-3-3 since Roy went behind the bench, which is hardly the kind of boost teams generally are seeking when they make a coaching change.