Not every win is a beautiful masterpiece or flawless hockey. Sometimes, the more impressive wins are the gritty and simple slogs against the odds. The Pittsburgh Penguins who lacked their top two defensemen due to an injury suffered Saturday then lost speedy winger Bryan Rust and third pairing defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. The Penguins instead got standout efforts from Jared McCann, Jack Johnson and a few sparklers from Matt Murray in a suffocating 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tuesday.
Was this a statement win for the Penguins, given Columbus’ big splash at the trade deadline?
“I didn’t forget about us,” quipped Johnson. “We’ve got a helluva team in the room.”
The tactical breakdown of the game won’t take long.
The Penguins religiously made the simple plays. They had rush opportunities. Patric Hornqvist barged into the Columbus zone to create the first goal, which was scored by Jake Guentzel. The Penguins second line led by Evgeni Malkin and Zach Aston-Reese stormed the Columbus zone but also chased loose pucks.
In Sullivan-speak, they stayed on the right side of the puck and forced Columbus to come through them for 200 feet. There weren’t many turnovers or gift wrapped rushes.
“We played solid defensively, played the right way. We got pucks in deep, stayed above it,” said goalie Matt Murray.
The Penguins worked on chip plays off the wall into the offensive zone, Monday at practice and they used it well, though Sulivan saw some room for improvement on that specific play.
“When the plays not there and we put pucks behind defensemen and try to get after a forecheck and create offense that way, I think our team is at our best,” Sullivan said. “I thought in the second period, we turned the puck over a fair amount of times and we got on our heels a little bit.”
The injury to Bryan Rust in the first period limited the Penguins to a three-line roll and the injury to Chad Ruhwedel in the second period really “jacked” up Johnson’s minutes. After he played over 31 minutes Saturday, Johnson played over 26, Tuesday.
“I knew this team, even before I got here, has a ton of character. You don’t win as many times as they have without it,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see (the character) but I’m not surprised by the guys in the room.”
The Penguins practice Wednesday, but Johnson may have earned a “maintenance day” and a few minutes in the tub.
The Penguins pulled back, offensively in the third period and buttoned down. Unlike Saturday, the Penguins didn’t need to worry about their goaltender or rain. The Penguins smothered Columbus by maintaining puck pressure hen applicable and pulling back to take away the scoring zones.
Columbus with Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Dzingel, and Cam Atkinson had only 23 shots. Most importantly for the Penguins, Columbus had only two scoring chances in the third period (though it’s unclear if the Columbus 3-on-0 without a shot counts as scoring chance).
Penguins Report Card
Matt Murray: A
The big goalie rebounded from his stumble well. He made a few great saves and was in position. Isn’t it amazing how much better goalies appear to play as they face fewer shots?
Phil Kessel: A-. Tell Your Parents You’re Allowed to Go on the Field Trip
Can’t give him an A because he only had one shot. Kessel needs to fire multiple or many shots per game. However, Kessel played 200 feet and involved in the play. I think he was attempting to be defensively responsible when he hung out higher in the zone when Zach Aston-Reese forced the play low. Kessel did make himself available for the one-timers in the slot.
He backchecked. He even forechecked. Good Phil.
Zach Aston-Reese: A
The game is slowing down for the big winger and he is adding levels and layers to his game. He’s playing on the rush, he’s playing on the wall and he’s going to the net. Tuesday, he slipped the puck through one defender at the blue line then deked the defenseman for a great scoring chance.
I think he’s exceeding all expectations.
Justin Schultz-Jack Johnson: A
A team doesn’t win, nor hold a good team to only 23 shots if their top pairing defenseman who played over 26 minutes didn’t play well. In his return to Columbus, Johnson had hop, he was appropriately tough, and he was steady Eddie.
He and Schultz are forming quite the pairing. Johnson covers for Schultz and Schultz provides the puck movement for Johnson.
The pair stayed between the puck and the net. Also note–for everyone who says Johnson can’t skate well–he is rarely if ever beaten 1-on-1. The skating knock is a little overblown. He only looks like a fire hydrant.
Jared McCann: A+
If you joined the last couple YouTube live chats, you know I really like what McCann brings, especially on as LW. He’s fast, intense, relentless, and is having the time of his hockey life playing with Sidney Crosby, whose poster adorned young McCann’s walls.
The Penguins got a steal and playing on the wing frees him up to be more disruptive and offensive.
Juuso Riikola: C
Riikola was OK. He had some rough spots and played conservatively. His advanced stats were poor but his on-ice play was good enough to tread water.