For a moment, the Pittsburgh Penguins scrappy, resilient, heart was again visible. The Penguins received timely saves from Matt Murray, a gutsy fight with a villain from Jamie Oleksiak, a power-play goal from captain Sidney Crosby and a greasy goal from new top line grinder, Bryan Rust.
The Penguins 2-1 win in Washington over the defending Stanley Cup champions, who clearly enjoy the swagger the Cup brings, was a Sidney Crosby type game. It was fast, intense and gritty. The Penguins offense came winning battles in the low zone and going the net. The played simply by chipping the puck forward and chasing it, not forcing cross-ice passes.
“They have so much firepower, we had to make it a scrappy game,” said Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson.
It wasn’t a shining example of beautiful hockey. It wasn’t even a refined technical effort. It was gritty hockey and from the famous monologue in Rocky Balboa, “That’s how winnin’ is done.”
The Penguins chose a scrappy game. Finally. The results spoke for themselves.
“You know we’ve got to build on it. It’s a divisional rivalry and a team that we’ve seen a lot so I think you know these games. These kinds of an intense emotional game seem to bring out the best in us,” said Crosby.
The Penguins overcame their mistakes and did not succumb to them. When Jake Guentzel gave up the puck at the Washington blue line instead of dumping it in for a line change, and Washington converted the turnover to a goal, the Penguins scored less than three minutes later.
On a Penguins power play, Phil Kessel tried to skate past Tom Wilson but instead turned it over and took a penalty. Instead of wilting, the Penguins killed the penalty.
When the Penguins took consecutive penalties in the first period, it was they who nearly scored, not Washington. Riley Sheahan and Matt Cullen pressured the Washington power play and had a pair of glorious shorthanded chances. Sheahan hit the post.
The game was in perpetual 100 miles per hour motion, and neither team was able to control the chaos for more than a few minutes. And that’s a point worth remembering, too. The Penguins didn’t cede the entire second period, as they did against Anaheim. They didn’t fold when the whistles when the whistles went against them in the first period. They didn’t flounder or loosen up with a lead in the third period.
Monday night, Mike Sullivan’s quote was accurate, “We lose momentum and so we’ve got to have a little bit more pushback and in those situations (when losing leads).”
Wednesday, the fight never stopped. The Penguins battled for pucks, went to the net, and they even bailed out their goaltender. They didn’t win every battle or dominate. But they won enough and did enough. Perhaps goaltender Matt Murray and defenseman Marcus Pettersson will share a steak dinner over the holiday break for Pettersson’s third period diving game saving save pictured above.
“Luckily, I was close to get a stick on it,” said Pettersson.
There was no luck involved with Pettersson’s diving save, either. Despite being a man down for 59 minutes, the Penguins defense corps protected their zone. Sure, Jakob Vrana nearly scored when he speed rushed the left wing past Jack Johnson. Yes, Kris Letang in his 32 minutes of ice time yielded a few chances. And Kessel and Evgeni Malkin almost handed Washington a goal with a turnover and slow defensive effort.
Every hockey game has glorious chances for both teams, but Wednesday the Penguins made them isolated incidents, not kindling for more. The scrappy Penguins wouldn’t allow it to snowball.
“I give our guys a lot of credit. Washington is obviously is a good team and it was a hard fought battle,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “You know I thought we found a way. You know we started with our goaltender and it worked out from there but I thought it was a solid effort by everybody.“
In this case, “coach speak” is correct. Even the Penguins justifiably maligned second line, which was overmatched by the Washington top line with Niklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and the ever-charging bull Alex Ovechkin, deserves credit. Malkin’s line didn’t self destruct. It was quiet.
Phil Kessel didn’t have any shots, he took the bad penalty after the bad turnover, but he forechecked and pressured the puck. It wasn’t his best game or even a good one, but the Penguins overcame the tough moments.
Murray was not at his best, but he too made it a “scrappy” game.
“He really battled. I thought he made some he made some timely saves for us at times in the game and you know he gave us a chance to win,” Sullivan praised. “I thought he really competed hard.”
It’s these types of games which build character as much as they reveal it. The Penguins still have it. Somewhere, deep down, it still exists. And that is something on which to build.