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Penguins Grades: So Many Good Things, Was It Too Late?

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Pittsburgh Penguins Game, Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins may have waited a few games too long to find themselves and their desire. Monday, they won their eight game in 12 and have points in 11 of those. The Penguins overwhelmed the Nashville Predators, scoring six goals, four of which counted, for a 4-2 win at PPG Paints Arena.

However, their playoff hopes now hang by a thread going into Game 82. In fact, they will know if they have a chance at the Stanley Cup playoffs before they take the ice Wednesday against the New York Islanders. The Detroit Red Wings rallied from a 4-1 deficit to beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime Monday. And the Washington Capitals beat a lethargic Boston Bruins 2-0 with an empty net goal.

Gee, thanks, Boston. Now, the Penguins need both Washington and Detroit to lose Tuesday.

Read More: Stayin’ Alive. Penguins Still in Playoff Hunt. Beat Nashville 4-2

“(With) how hard we’ve worked to get ourselves back in the picture here, I’m hoping that we find a way to make that a meaningful game (Wednesday),” Sidney Crosby said.  “So that’d be great. We’ve worked pretty hard to get ourselves into this position and give ourselves a chance. So we’re hopeful we’ll get that opportunity.”

On to the game…

The Penguins thoroughly dominated the first period from start to finish. They outshot Nashville 20-5 and had a bevy of scoring chances near the net.

In fact, the Penguins lit the lamp four times despite leading only 2-0. Two Penguins power play goals were overturned due to goaltender interference. Both were softer calls, but the second was 10-ply.

Crosby got one of them back with a diving rebound poke.

As significantly as the Penguins buried Nashville in the first, their game was sloppy in the second, allowing Nashville 16 shots to their eight.

And then, exactly as you would expect, the Penguins’ fourth line with Jeff Carter, Jansen Harkins, and Emil Bemstrom delivered a game-changing shift early in the third period with puck retrievals, keeps at the blue line by Erik Karlsson and Marcus Pettersson, and finally, a pure one-timer by Bemstrom that hit twine.

Penguins netminder Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 28 of 30 shots and scrapped to the end. Nashville’s tendy Juuse Saros was very good, even as he allowed 34 of 38.

Penguins Analysis

This team is never boring. In contrast, others like Florida, Boston, and Colorado have been on cruise control for months, if not years. Mr. Penguins’ wild ride is not for the faint of heart.

There isn’t a more determined hockey player in history than Crosby. There just isn’t. For those of you old enough to remember Paul Steigerwald describing Mario Lemieux’s most angry and dominant moments as “fire in his eyes,” Crosby has played every game for weeks like that.

“He’s the heartbeat of our team,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

Crosby dove for a goal in the first period. He dove to keep a play alive later in the first period. He even drew a penalty immediately following Nashville’s third period power play with an extra bit of hustle.

The Penguins tightened the screws in the third period.

What the Penguins did well

“I think we came out with some fire. I think we maybe caught them by surprise a little bit. We were all over them,” said goalie Nedeljkovic. “That was probably our best first period of the year. It may be our most complete effort in the season. I know we’ve said that a lot lately, but we keep finding a way to outdo ourselves and just come back with good efforts night after night.”

Breakouts. The Penguins’ zone outs were on point, allowing them to bring the play to Nashville. Except for the chunk of the second period in which the Penguins were scrambly, they used the wall to pass, not chip to safety, held the puck until the passing lane opened, and moved their feet.

In the third period, the Penguins defended incredibly well. They put a body and a stick on every Nashville player. There was little space, and the Penguins controlled the period after Bemstrom’s snipe.

The Penguins also worked the walls well, as well as the front of their net, again, except for a good portion of the second period.

The defensemen activated very well. The backbreaker—the fourth goal—was by the fourth line. The defensemen held the blue line. Throughout the game, the Penguins overwhelmed Nashville by responsibly activating the defensemen. Even the third pairing made appearances below the dots to extend plays and create offense.

Most importantly, the Pittsburgh Penguins played with the intensity and desire befitting a playoff team.

“If we played like this all year, we’d be in the playoffs,” Evgeni Malkin said.

Penguins Grades

In full disclosure, I loved their overall game. They beat a good team that was playing hard, and they beat them soundly with tight defense and a scrappy offense.

Team: A-

That second-period slump was a bit too sloppy to get an A. Their defensive zone coverage was chaotic, and they were trying to put the dagger in Nashville instead of keeping the game buttoned up, but once Reilly Smith beat the icing call and then scored from the slot, they settled in and controlled the game.

Power Play: A+

No, seriously. This was absolutely the best it has been all season. The Penguins scored three power-play goals, one of which counted. They defended shorthanded puck carriers properly, established zone time, created net-front traffic, and shot the puck.

They shot the puck.

Yes, the Penguins’ power play shot the puck with net-front traffic. Who knew that could work?

Sidney Crosby: 

This is just an appreciation grade. It’s fun to watch someone pour everything into something with such passion, and he should be a finalist for the Hart Trophy. He won’t win it, but he deserves the accolade (and probably should have won a few that he didn’t).

Erik Karlsson: A

There was something different on Monday. When he clobbered Jason Zucker in the first period with a hit that knocked Zucker off his skates, he showed defensive “want to.” He skated with the puck, and he raced it out of trouble while running a tight power play.

The rest of the defensemen get good marks, too.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A

Battle. Heart. He exemplifies the Penguins’ late push. Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas should tackle Nedeljkovic on breakup day and not let him leave the room until he signs a new contract.

Jeff Carter: A

Lately, I’ve received some requests to grade Carter. There were many things he did on Monday that you didn’t see on TV. He covered the net front while the defensemen battled elsewhere, he pushed the play ahead for Smith’s goal, and he was a primary cog in the extended zone time for Bemstom’s tally.

This might have been his last game in Pittsburgh. He went out with a high-end, blue-collar effort.