It was globetrotter hockey. Sloppy, irresponsible hockey has occasionally sunk the Pittsburgh Penguins throughout the last 15 years. In January, the Penguins immediately reverted to that mindset following their 10-game winning streak when Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup.
Sunday’s 4-2 win over New Jersey Devils was a different story, finally.
Malkin had nearly 10 months of rink rust to undo, but the team decided it was different when he returned in January. Whether it was conscious or unconscious, everything changed, and not for the better.
The Penguins won with Malkin back in the lineup on Sunday after he missed the previous two due to COVID protocol. The Penguins, not coincidentally, won both previous games. Perhaps head coach Mike Sullivan sent a little message to his team in the postgame on Sunday, too.
“I don’t think we were quite as sharp today as we were against Ottawa (on Thursday). You know, I felt our guys, our team, was really locked in against Ottawa. I thought we worked today. We were trying to dictate the terms out there as far as controlling territory and executing some of the strategies that we utilize as a group to try to do that, but I do think we played well enough to earn a win,” Sullivan said.
Malkin wasn’t in the lineup on Thursday against Ottawa when Sullivan felt his team was dialed in.
Despite a six-game winning streak after Malkin returned in mid-January, Sunday was the first gritty effort with the big guy back in the lineup. The Penguins won those other games “without their best.” Sunday, they simplified. It was the first solid game with Malkin on the ice.
And that was a big step in the right direction.
“It seemed like every position was playing very solid. It didn’t seem like we were making a lot of big, glaring mistakes. And so I think it was just a solid effort,” defenseman Mike Matheson said.
However, Malkin’s line with Brock McGinn and Kasperi Kapanen was a negative. While the team was in the positive territory with shots, shot attempts and generated scoring chances, the Malkin line did not.
The Jeff Carter line generated seven scoring chances and gave up just one. The fourth line with Brian Boyle also generated five chances whilst giving up one. Crosby had to defend Jack Hughes, and the Penguins’ top-line outscored their opponent, though they were slightly outchanced (8-5).
The Malkin line was outchanced 6-2.
Please don’t mistake that for blaming Evgeni Malkin. Kasperi Kapanen was again AWOL. He had one shot on goal. The coaches are also shoehorning McGinn on the left side; McGinn has been little more than an impactful fourth-liner in his seven-year career.
And yet it was a step in the right direction because the team was not affected by it. The team simplified their game with extended offensive pressure in the low zone. They chipped pucks deep and retrieved them. The fourth-liners with Boyle, Zach Aston-Reese, and Dominik Simon chipped in two goals.
The rest of the team played a gritty game, between the dots and down low in the offensive zone without forgetting about the unfun side of the rink.
It felt like more than baby steps.
Pittsburgh Penguins Return to Form?
The Penguins finally played something akin to their best hockey with Malkin and won.
“I think, for the most part, we’re trying to play the game that gives us the best chance to win (since the All-Star break). And our players have a real good understanding of what that looks like. When we’re on the same page from a collective effort standpoint, I think we’re a team that plays a stingy game,” Sullivan said. “And I think we do it differently than a lot of teams. We’re not a team that sits back and just defends. I think our best defense takes place 150, 160 feet from our net just with our puck possession game or our pursuit game.”
The stark nature of the Penguins’ about-face before the All-Star break was greater than anyone predicted. It was like a substitute teacher showing up and canceling the test. Suddenly, everything was loose, and the structure which carried the Penguins through adverse times in November and December was gone.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a three-game winning streak. While none have been their oppressive best, they have returned to the structure. They outshot Ottawa 19-5 in the third period. They kept the New Jersey Devils off the board in the third period.
New Jersey is not the slouch their record may suggest. The team is finding its stride with Jack Hughes back in the lineup consistently and scored seven goals in each of their previous two games, including a five-goal third period comeback win over the stingy St. Louis Blues.
Sunday wasn’t a step in the right direction for Kasperi Kapanen, but it was a step in the right direction for Evgeni Malkin and the team. They simplified their game and applied heavy pressure.
Now, about Kapanen…