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Penguins Report Card: Feisty & Explosive, Pens’ Core Leads Win Over Flames



Evgeni Malkin, Rickard Rakell, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins fans put down their hatred of Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada for a few moments in the third period to unleash a chant that has not been heard as often in recent seasons. “Geno” cheers rained from the upper decks after Evgeni Malkin scored his second goal in two games and registered his second straight multi-point game as the Penguins put away the Calgary Flames, 5-2, Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.

After struggling to put it together for much of the first 40 minutes, the Penguins boat-raced Calgary in the third with five goals, including an empty-netter.

“I thought the third period, we were much stiffer on the puck, and that was something we talked about,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Just making better decisions on the entries. If there’s no ice to play on, we’ve got to put pucks behind them and then get our noses over (the puck) and hang on. Yeah, I thought we did a pretty good job.”

Get the Penguins postgame recap here.

On the second game of a back-to-back, the Penguins were feisty from the puck drop, though not always effective. Malkin drew a pair of penalties and had to be pulled away from the Calgary bench midway through the first period.

A couple of early Penguins power plays didn’t result in a goal, but several great chances.

Penguins Analysis:

Disjointed or ugly wins count the same as pretty ones, and while it wasn’t a great 60-minute game, the Penguins defended well enough to protect backup goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who made 34 saves. The advanced stats showed Calgary with many more chances, but a narrow advantage in high-danger chances (11-8).

Nedeljkovic, who signed as a free agent after two disappointing seasons with Detroit, felt safe behind the Penguins defense. He also made the necessary saves without generating second chances with bad rebounds.

“(The saves) were pretty routine, easy. We did a great job of keeping them to the outside all night,” Nedeljkovic said. “Even if they got to the slot with Grade-A chances, we were getting sticks on it, making it uncomfortable for them, so they weren’t getting time to focus and (get) a good shot off.”

Technically, the Penguins achieved a third-period comeback victory and didn’t have to hold the lead after two periods, but they had to hold the lead for the final 19 minutes after scoring two goals in the first 41 seconds of the third.

And they held it with ease. The Penguins are learning. And they are teaching. The Penguins attacked Calgary without exposing the defense to unnecessary pressure. Sullivan has impressed upon his forwards that F3 must stay high in the offensive zone unless the puck is guaranteed. Combined with intelligent play, the Penguins have held two straight leads without letting the opposition generate ANY momentum in the third.

Not all was perfect, and coaches shuffled the defensive pairings in the second period after some struggles and turnovers. The second period was a bit of a mess. Ryan Graves is struggling a bit, perhaps trying to do too much. His puck management has been spotty, and he appears to be trying to join the offensive play by breaking out the D-zone too quickly, losing the puck.

Graves also took the penalty that led to Calgary’s power-play goal in the second period.

Coaches shuffled him down to the third pairing for a respite, and P.O Joseph was elevated, but the pairs were restored at the start of the third period. Message sent, message received.

It seemed like Calgary would crack the Penguins in the second. At 5v5, the Penguins had sloppy puck-possession and not many shots or scoring chances. Calgary had plenty, peppering Nedeljkovic with 22 chances in the first 40 minutes, but the old lions again proved they were the kings of the jungle in the third.

Penguins Core:

Kris Letang teed up the chances. Evgeni Malkin is playing his best game, and Sidney Crosby is playing like a feisty scrapper with all-world talent. Wingers Jake Guentzel, Reilly Smith, and Bryan Rust are reaping the rewards.

But it’s the Penguins “old guys” who are leading the charge, probably learning the lesson that even points earned in October matter when they check the totals in April.

“They’re doing a lot of little things,” said Sullivan. “(Friday), Geno on Reilly Smith’s goal in the third period. It starts with a great backcheck, just a great track from behind. (Malkin) strips the puck, then makes an unbelievable pass to Riley, who finishes. And I think it’s a lot of those little things. I thought 5v6, Sid’s line was terrific. In the 5v6 in our end, our guys are blocking shots, Rusty and Jake. And then our other guys are doing the same thing.”

After 40 minutes of a sketchy effort, the Penguins’ core buried Calgary. The finish that eluded the Penguins for 40 minutes took 18 seconds to correct at the beginning of the third, when Letang intentionally shot wide. Bryan Rust was at the net and banked the purposefully errant shot off Calgary netminder Jacob Markstrom.

The horses bolted from the corral. The scoring chances and goals in the third period were not accidents or the result of Calgary’s mistakes, but assertive Penguins actions beginning from the back end.

Evgeni Malkin set up Reilly Smith 23 seconds later, and Letang set up Jake Guentzel five minutes into the final period for the game-winner. Reilly Smith returned the favor to Malkin midway through the third period to remove any doubt about the outcome.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card:

Team: B-

It wasn’t a good game, but it never felt like the Penguins were on their heels, either. The strange game included feistiness from the core, shuffling defensive pairs after some real struggles, and a Jeff Carter steal and breakaway.

Sidney Crosby avoided a penalty with the respected-veteran exemption after he stood up for teammate Jake Guentzel, who was hit hard near the Calgary net in the second period. Crosby scrapped with Calgary defenseman Dennis Gilbert without receiving a penalty.

Evgeni Malkin: A

Even in the second-period doldrums, he lurked like a great white shark. Despite his success last season, he’s probably playing better hockey than at any point in 2022-23. He’s aggressively disrupting opponents’ breakouts. Holding the puck without making silly passes. He’s snapping the puck to Reilly Smith through seams that create great scoring chances for Smith, and he’s a step ahead of everyone else in the offensive zone.

There’s no way to analyze all of that in a paragraph. He’s a sight to behold at 37 years old.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A

The goaltender didn’t give Calgary anything extra. He was solid positionally. It was a good first outing that should build confidence.

Ryan Graves: D

The big defenseman’s mobility is immediately a noticeable contrast to Brian Dumoulin, but his mistakes were mounting. He was good in the third period, but a weak point in the first 40. He needs to simplify and take care of the net.

Sidney Crosby: B

The Crosby line scored a pair of goals but was out-chanced, 9-5. Yet it’s hard not to love that Crosby has been involved in several scraps and fights since the final preseason game.

The line has been out-chanced this season, but Crosby has managed to assert himself.

He’s leading the team and setting a high standard so that October points don’t slip away. He’s also adapting his game to where his skills lie in this increasingly fast and young NHL. The venerable Crosby is keeping everyone in check.

Bryan Rust: A

Rust is playing that irritating, gritty game that earned him a new contract. He looked sluggish for a good bit of last season, but he looks quick again and is pressuring the puck. His first goal (he also scored the empty-netter) came about because he was at the net and claimed position.

Reilly Smith: A

The second line, with Malkin in the middle, is something special. Smith looked snakebitten in the first couple of games, but after the dam broke in the third period Friday, he scored again Saturday and had a nifty assist.

What Smith is doing better than previous Malkin linemates is playing forward. He’s finding a lane to receive the pass, and his rush is pushing the defensemen back — his transition game has been a perfect fit for Malkin, who isn’t missing that pass.