The culprits are well known to Pittsburgh Penguins fans. The Penguins lost eight of their last 10 games and were embarrassed in two consecutive games on Saturday and Sunday by divisional foes Washington and Carolina. Tuesday night, the Penguins had a one-goal lead on the road, but early in the third period, the Penguins prepared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Penguins played well on Sunday against Carolina, too. But adversity swallowed them whole, and the Penguins folded in the third period during the 6-2 loss. The stage was set for another meltdown in New Jersey on Tuesday.
The Penguins led the New Jersey Devils 2-1 after two periods. Just over three minutes into the period, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby earned a high sticking minor. There wasn’t much doubt about the call, either. It wasn’t intentional, but Crosby’s stick hit Nico Hischier’s face.
A power play for New Jersey.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t done digging their hole. Just 18 seconds later, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang grabbed the shovel and moved more dirt. Letang responded to a few words and agitation by New Jersey forward Miles Wood. Far behind the play, Letang knocked the stick out of Wood’s hands.
Now, it became a two-man advantage for 1:42. Head coach Mike Sullivan glared across the ice.
With a one-goal lead, losses mounting, and teams behind the Penguins quickly catching them in the Metro Division standings, the storm clouds were figuratively rolling in fast.
But as they have done this season, the Penguins unheralded players stepped to the fore. And Evgeni Malkin scored. And scored again. The Penguins deserved their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, but the 102 seconds of a New Jersey 5v3 power play was their season hanging by a thread.
Carolina beat Detroit on Tuesday night. The New York Rangers also won, and the New York Islanders earned a loser point against Vancouver. The perilous cushion between the Penguins and being out of the playoffs would have been just four points…with another loss.
Had the Penguins yielded a power-play goal, or two, the spiral most likely would have accelerated. Instead, the Penguins finally stopped the bleeding.
Teddy Blueger was 4-0 on faceoffs on Tuesday night. He won a pair of them on the biggest PK of the season (so far). Faceoffs have been an issue for the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they’ve languished near the bottom of the league. However, as hockey coaches will tell you, it’s not always the draw that is the most crucial part of the play. The defining moments are the next few seconds.
Blueger won the faceoff but the Penguins needed another play. Brian Dumoulin raced from his position to control the loose puck, used an extra little hop to gain separation from a New Jersey forechecker and clear the puck.
New Jersey quickly gathered the puck in neutral territory and charged again. Look at the aggressive posture of the Penguins PK (Bryan Rust, Blueger, and Dumoulin). Rust and Dumoulin sealed off the rush, and Blueger well positioned himself to defend the point. The result was a missed pass which again caromed to center ice.
Take 3: The Bryan Rust Block
The Pittsburgh Penguins were 30 seconds into the kill of the season. New Jersey entered the zone with speed, and with good puck movement, Hischier had a good chance for a one-timer from the slot.
Rust dove to block the shot.
“The (penalty kill) was awesome. Teddy (Blueger) had a huge block. “Rusty” had a huge block. “Petey” (Marcus Pettersson) had a couple of huge blocks,” Matt Murray said. “All of us were blocking shots out there and doing what it took to get the job done. That’s what you need to win, and that’s what we did.”
Blueger won the following faceoff, but the Penguins could not clear. Watch Blueger’s aggressiveness, though. He didn’t just station himself well to defend a cross-ice pass, but he also charged the midwall to apply pressure.
Then Blueger went full out to block the shot. The Penguins averted another opportunity.
The Murray Saves
After one minute, New Jersey finally set up their two-man advantage and pressure the Penguins. The hockey axiom is a team’s best penalty killer is the goalie. That is true, and Matt Murray made a difficult save look easy.
Blueger and Jack Johnson blocked shots. Then, the Penguins called upon Murray. Nikita Gusev ripped a one-timer from just 17 feet, but Murray was squarely in position. Murray was ready for the second chance, too, until New Jersey dislodged the net.
The Penguins fragile psyche was strengthened and not broken. They made their own luck, created their own plays, and looked like the resolute team, which survived far worse in the first half of the season.
A few minutes later, Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winning goal.
The Penguins could breathe easier. Smiles and praise in the locker room, and the media rope line followed. The Penguins moved closer to Philadelphia for second place than out of the playoffs.
And that was the 1:42 which saved the Penguins season.