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Penguins Six-Pack: Playing the Right Way; Crosby’s the Heartbeat

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Sidney Crosby goal Nashville Predators

There was an awful lot for the Pittsburgh Penguins to like about their 4-2 victory against Nashville at PPG Paints Arena Monday night.

Some of them were things that happened.

Others were things that didn’t, like not allowing Gustav Nyqvist’s goal that sliced their lead to 2-1 as the middle of the second period approached to knock them off their game.

They were rewarded 57 seconds later, when Reilly Smith scored to make it 3-1.

“What I liked was our response after they scored,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We didn’t get on our heels. We didn’t let it affect our mindset. We just kept playing. We had that next-shift attitude or that next-play mindset that I think is so critical at this time of year.”

Those, of course, are the approaches Sidney Crosby has pretty much every time he goes over the boards. He scored the Penguins’ first goal by lunging to knock in a loose puck and set up their second, and has all but willed them back into contention for a playoff berth.

“He’s the heartbeat of the team,” Sullivan said. “There’s no other way to say it.”

1. Making the call

One of the great mysteries in today’s NHL is precisely what constitutes goaltender interference.

The Penguins had two first-period goals disallowed because Nashville challenged them for purported violations. The decision went the Predators’ way both times, as the NHL’s Situation Room determined that a forward hovering near the Nashville crease has impeded goalie Juuse Saros’ ability to play his position effectively by striking Saros’ skate with a stick.

“If that first goal is allowed, I think the second one is, as well,” Erik Karlsson said.

The first, in which Michael Bunting was deemed to be guilty, seemed like a coin toss; the second, when Lars Eller was cited for interfering with Saros, was something of a head-scratcher, since Saros appeared to be the one who caused the nominal contact between the two.

“I thought the first one was a good call,” Sullivan said. “I think the second one is anybody’s guess.”

Eller had a much more firm opinion about what happened on the play in which he was involved.

“I guess I had a couple of inches of the back of my (skate) blade inside the (crease), but I didn’t feel like I really initiated the contact,” he said. “I think it was very weak. But it is what it is.”

2. Strange days, indeed

Circumstances have put the Penguins in the strange, and probably uncomfortable, position of having to root for their longest, most bitter rivals Tuesday night.

That’s because they need to have Philadelphia defeat Washington at Wells Fargo Center to preserve their hopes of getting into the playoffs.

Washington, like Detroit, leads the Penguins by one point in the fight for the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference and can eliminate the Penguins from the race by beating the Flyers.

Philadelphia should be motivated to win, because the two points it would earn by beating the Capitals would give the Flyers a chance to claim that wild card, pending the outcome of the Red Wings’ game in Montreal.

3. Starting strong

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered this game needing at least one point to keep their playoff hopes on mathematical life support, and that urgency showed in the way they started the game.

They outshot the Predators, 20-5, and outscored them, 2-0 (not counting the two goals that were disallowed).

“I thought we had a great start,” Kris Letang said. “We played with a lot of energy early on, dictating the pace. We didn’t give them too much, and I think the special units made a big difference.”

It might have been the Penguins’ most impressive first period of the season, and is on the short list of their 20 minutes at any point in any game in 2023-24.

“I loved our urgency, right from the drop of the puck,” Sullivan said. “You could see the intent of the players right away. They were a determined group.”

4. Help from below

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ lack of secondary scoring has been a source of distress for much of 2023-24, as they have had to rely on their top two lines to generate the bulk of their goals.

Monday night, however, they got two critical goals from members of their third and fourth lines.

Smith scored what proved to be the game-winner at 8:21 of the second period — his first goal in 14 games — and Emil Bemstrom gave the Penguins some welcome insurance when he blistered a slap shot past Saros at 2:42 of the third.

“It’s great to see Reilly put one in the net,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully, that will take a little pressure off him.”

Bemstrom’s goal was his first in seven games and his third in 24 games since being acquired from Columbus Feb. 22.

If he records a hat trick in the Penguins’ game on Long Island Wednesday, the sixth-round draft choice they gave the Blue Jackets for him will be upgraded to a third-rounder.

5. Killing to stay alive

After giving up five power-play goals in their previous six games, the Penguins hit upon an effective strategy for limiting the damage Nashville could do with the extra man: They only gave the Predators one chance to try.

That came at 7:09 of the third period, when Smith was sent off for hooking Filip Forsberg.

Nashville was held without a shot on goal while he was in the penalty box, in part because the Penguins blocked two shots and won both faceoffs during those two minutes.

6. Zucker’s uneventful return

Former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jason Zucker, who Nashville acquired from Arizona at the trade deadline, had an uncharacteristically quiet evening.

He logged just eight minutes, 59 seconds of ice time and was credited with no shots and two hits.

Zucker did, however, pick up 12 penalty minutes, two for a hook late in the second period and 10 for abuse of an official during the third.

He also had an animated give-and-take with Karlsson, when both players smiled their way through an exchange of verbal hostilities.