The Pittsburgh Penguins might not have saved their season Saturday night.
Perhaps their 3-2, come-from-behind overtime victory over Montreal at PPG Paints Arena will turn out to have done nothing more than give them a brief respite from a string of disappointing results, allow them to go through their bye week and the NHL all-star break in a slightly more upbeat frame of mind.
But it surely seems critical that they managed to grab those two points from a game that was not far removed from being a “must-win.”
“We needed these points more than anything,” left winger Jake Guentzel said, a sentiment reflected by the celebration pictured above.
Here’s a look at some of the highs and lows from the Penguins’ final game until Winnipeg visits on Feb. 6.
1. Still a steep climb
Detroit, which currently holds the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference playoff field, is 26-18-5. That’s good for 57 points, and projects to 95 over an 82-game season.
The Penguins are 22-17-7, which gives them 51 points. They have three games in hand on the Red Wings (it will be four after Ottawa visits Detroit Wednesday, the final day before the all-star break begins for all teams.)
If the Penguins are to finish one point ahead of the Wings’ projected total — obviously, that figure is subject to change — they will have to earn 45 points over their remaining 36 games.
That would require them to go 22-13-1 (or its equivalent), which translates to a .625 winning percentage.
Doable? It should be.
But it will acquire a major upgrade over their performance to date, since the Penguins have picked up points at a .554 clip so far in 2023-24.
One encouraging thing for the Penguins: Philadelphia, which has exceeded expectations for most of the season, sits third in the Metropolitan Division, has lost its past five games, during which time its winning percentage has dropped to .560. If the Flyers, who have played 50 games, remain in free fall, they might be the club the Penguins have the best chance to overtake.
2. The Great Dane
Mike Sullivan honored Lars Eller’s 1,000th NHL game by deploying his line at the start of the game, an assignment that almost always goes to the unit centered by Sidney Crosby.
While that initial shift, when he had fourth-liners Noel Acciari and Jeff Carter on the wings, was fairly uneventful, Eller went on to turn in a typically strong two-way game.
He scored the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first goal, won six of 10 faceoffs and finished with four shots, more than any teammate except Guentzel.
The only blemish on his performance was that he was on the ice for Montreal’s power-play goal. Aside from that, Eller was, as usual, everything the Penguins were seeking when they signed him as a free agent last July to be their No. 3 center.
“He’s just quietly done what we hoped he would do,” Sullivan said. “He’s a real good player on both sides of the puck.”
Eller’s milestone was celebrated in a pregame ceremony, and while he said that “I don’t necessarily like all the spotlight,” he certainly seemed to thrive in it while becoming the 36th active player and 388th in league history — as well as the first hailing from Denmark — to appear in 1,000 games.
3. Passing fancy
Although Guentzel’s game-tying goal midway through the third period was overshadowed by Marcus Pettersson’s overtime winner, Crosby’s pass that set up the Guentzel goal won’t soon be forgotten soon by anyone who witnessed it.
Crosby got the puck at the right dot and, without so much as a glance, threw a blind, backhand pass directly onto the stick of Guentzel, who was set up at the left side of the crease and steered the puck past Canadiens goalie Jake Allen to make it 2-2.
OH GOODNESS, WHAT A PASS FROM SIDNEY CROSBY! 😮💨
— NHL (@NHL) January 28, 2024
Guentzel called Crosby’s feed “unbelievable,” and said he had no idea a pass would be coming his way until “it hit my tape. … That’s just what he does. A spin-a-rama, right on the tape.”
4. Special problem remains
The Penguins won the game, but they lost the special-teams battle.
They failed to score on two power plays, while Montreal converted its only chance with the extra man.
The Penguins’ power play has shown some promise during its past three opportunities — since Kris Letang and Valtteri Puustinen replaced Erik Karlsson and Evgeni Malkin on the No. 1 unit — but they need to have it produce, not just make progress.
That’s especially true if their penalty-kill can’t escape the rut into which it has fallen, allowing four goals in seven shorthanded situations over the past three games.
5. A step toward redemption
Two wingers who have played their way out of the Penguins’ top-six, Rickard Rakell and Valtteri Puustinen, had pretty solid showings against the Canadiens.
Rakell, who had been shut out in five of the previous six games, had a pair of assists, including one on Pettersson’s game-winner.
Puustinen has fit in pretty well on the reconfigured No. 1 power play and launched the shot that, while blocked by Montreal defenseman Mike Matheson, led to Eller’s rebound goal in the second period.
Although they joined P.O Joseph as the only Pittsburgh Penguins skaters who didn’t record at least one shot on goal, both were consistently more visible and effective than they have been of late, and that could bode well for the roles they’ll fill after the break.
Puustinen was assigned to the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre Sunday, but that likely was just to keep him playing while the parent club is idle.
6. Matheson making it in Montreal
Matheson, who revived his career during a two-season stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has established himself as a core player with the Canadiens, and showed why with his work against his old team.
He logged a game-high 27:36 of ice time, was credited with three shots, four blocks and three takeaways, and made an outstanding pass to set up defense partner Kaiden Guhle for Montreal’s first goal.
Matheson’s defensive game still needs work — he was on the ice for every goal scored in this game — but his trajectory continues to go in the right direction. As does his profile.