The Pittsburgh Penguins completed the symbolic first half of their season in Sin City which was aptly named as the Penguins defenders committed a few sins which resulted in several breakaways and more odd-man breaks for the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault netted a hat trick and old friend Marc-Andre Fleury was not a gracious host when he robbed Phil Kessel on a second-period power play. The Penguins couldn’t keep up with the Vegas Golden Knights and lost their final game before the All-Star break, 7-3.
The game hinged on Fleury in the middle of the second period. The Vegas crowd chanted “Fleury,” after the Vegas netminder swiped a goal from Kessel with a sprawling-split save during a Penguins power play. Moments later, Marchessault (15, 16, 17) intercepted Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith’s clearing attempt then ripped it past an unready DeSmith for the game-winning goal.
“We made some mistakes. Early is when we made the most mistakes in the first period,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby who was obviously nursing a cold in the postgame media scrum. “We found a way to get back in it in the second period, but late in the second period, we made a couple more (mistakes).”
Marchessault scored a few minutes after his first goal, too. The Penguins left Marchessault alone deep in the Vegas offensive zone. DeSmith didn’t have a prayer. Marchessault lit the lamp for 5-3 Vegas lead and the Penguins didn’t offer much pushback after that.
Early in the game, Vegas attacked the Penguins with stretch passes and a lightning-fast transition game. Vegas scored three straight goals in the first period including a pair of goals in 43 seconds.
Pinching defensemen were an issue for the Penguins. Vegas took advantage of defensemen who tried to step forward at the offensive blue line. In the first period, Vegas had four breakaways and a pair of 2-on-1s.
“We gave up two breakaways and two 2-on-1s in the first 20 minutes of the game,” said head coach Mike Sulivan. “It was a combination of things. We just didn’t play the game very smart.”
First, defenseman Shea Theodore (6) blistered a slapshot past Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith. It was a power-play goal six minutes into the game, which tied the game 1-1.
Then top line winger Max Pacioretty was left uncovered in the right wing circle. Quick puck movement by Vegas gave Pacioretty a wide open net and the former Montreal Canadiens captain (13) pushed it into the yawning cage.
Less than one minute later, the Penguins pinching defenseman burned them. Brian Dumoulin stepped forward but Vegas stepped past for a 2-on-1. Oscar Lindberg (2) finished the odd-man rush after a late pass from Ryan Carpenter. It was the third straight Vegas goal.
Minutes into the first period, Penguins winger Phil Kessel scored his 20th goal of the season. His 11th consecutive season. He and center Evgeni Malkin worked a slick give-and-go to create a lane to the net, then defenseman Olli Maatta pinched low to zip a pass to Kessel on the near the crease. It wasn’t Las Vegas flashy it staked the Penguins an early lead.
Down 3-1 (insert cliche about the most dangerous lead in hockey here), the Penguins made a game of it in the second period.
“We had to climb back again. It’s tough to have to come back a couple of times,” Crosby said.
Sullivan shuffled the lines after the first period and it paid immediate dividends. Penguins coaches elevated Dominik Simon to the top line with Crosby and Bryan Rust to the right side of the third line with Derick Brassard.
Just 16 seconds into the period, Dumoulin intercepted a Vegas clearing attempt which began a pretty tic-tac-toe goal. Dumoulin snapped it to Jake Guentzel in the right corner who instantly zipped it to Dominik Simon (7) who had a wide-open net.
A few minutes later, the Penguins new top line scored again. The line cycled the puck low and Guentzel slipped a stealth backhand pass to Sidney Crosby (21) who chipped it past an unsuspecting Fleury.
A 3-3 tie is as close as the Penguins could get. DeSmith stopped 29 of 34 while Fleury was spectacular. The Penguins 2003 first-round pick (first overall) and the first pick in the 2017 Expansion Draft grabbed 34 of 37 shots though he failed to score his first ever goal despite a couple of chances at the empty net.
Marchessault added the empty netter for the hat trick.
The Penguins remain two points behind division leaders New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. The Penguins have a bye week and next week is the All-Star break. The next Penguins game will be in 9 days from Saturday.