The Pittsburgh Penguins became a top-flight act through December, culminating in their 10-game winning streak. In the last 15 games, the Penguins have lost only twice. They climbed to third place in the Metro Division ahead of the Washington Capitals and hot on the heels of the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers in what seemed highly unlikely, if not impossible, in November.
The Penguins had double-digit points behind the big boys, and it looked like the end was near. A team can only survive so many injuries, fight with COVID and face a stacked division for so long. It looked like a tough fight for a joker was on deck.
Nearly halfway through the season, the Penguins could potentially fight for a wildcard spot, but that will be in the context of fighting for a wildcard or divisional spot, not wildcard or going home. The chances of missing the playoffs are now low. The Penguins hold a 10-point lead with two games in hand over the rebuilding Detroit Red Wings and a 16-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The New York Islanders are a whopping 20 points behind the Penguins (but seven games in hand) and 16 points out of the playoff berth (with just four games in hand over the Boston Bruins). The Philadelphia Flyers are basically in a Pat’s wit mind coma. They’ve lost eight straight and are 18 points behind the Penguins with no game in hand.
It doesn’t look like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ road to the playoffs is through Barry Trotz this season.
But with high-flying or high-flying acts, hockey has a way of knocking teams off that thread, especially in the spring when the ice gets slushy, teams get angry, officials call less, and every game means more than previous.
While the Penguins moved up the Metro Division standings with Evan Rodrigues, Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby filling the net with healthy occasional contributions from Bryan Rust, they showed a different element on Monday against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Penguins went in net. Look at the main photo above. Jason Zucker in the crease, Evgeni Malkin diving for his rebound.
Time and time again, the Penguins have made life uncomfortable for Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner. Maybe Jeff Carter kicked it into the net on first base. Maybe defender Ben Hutton dropped his own ‘tendy’ in the cage. All that matters is that the Penguins won the battle in the crease and the officials scored the goal.
“It certainly wasn’t the best played game of our season, but it was definitely an important game,” Mike Matheson said.
Sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The Penguins didn’t use a rough bottom-up game to get the pucks to the net. Instead, the forwards kept the pucks low, used speed to retrieve loose pucks, and played in the gritty areas. They outshot Vegas 37-26, but only had one shot in the final minutes as they defended their lead.
Take a look at the hit chart from NaturalStatTrick.com. See the big blue dot with three Gs? That’s the concentration of shots and goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Perhaps just as important, the Penguins kept the Golden Knights clear of Tristan Jarry and the Penguins net. The Penguins lost the battle in net at the start of their western road trip to the Dallas Stars. In the third period, Dallas scored two goals from the doorstep and the Penguins let one slip away.
They did no such thing on Monday, even as Vegas pressed, the Penguins worked overtime (not literally) to keep Vegas shooting in the perimeter. As you can see above, Vegas had a lot of their shots behind the points and out.
“We’ve been playing some really good hockey lately. You know that road trip, I think we went 4-2 (correct). Very good road trip, you know, in terms of points, for us. I think it probably wasn’t our best hockey, but we found ways to win hockey games, and that’s what you have to do,” Jeff Carter said Monday night.
Scoring in front of the net is a pretty good substitute for the flying circus (and all the sketches of dead parrots). Some nights the connections won’t be there. The band to band passes out of the zone and in the zone, will be bricked up. Some nights you have to work harder to achieve the goals.
At least on Monday, the Penguins did. Jason Zucker scored a pair, one at net and one at net. Jake Guentzel picked a loose puck in traffic about 10 feet from the cage and used the shroud to stuff it into a wide-open net. And Teddy Blueger charged the net after Brian Boyle’s semi-breakaway (Boyle had a defender all over his back. Is that really a breakaway for anyone other than Mario Lemieux?).
Winning the net is a way to beat a hot goalie, wear down a defense and get two points when the pretty play just doesn’t work.
Vegas is a solid team that defends its net well. The Penguins’ method of scoring goals was no small feat.
Whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to blitz blue probably depends on a few players, including Zucker, Rust and necessity. But for one game, their low game was on point.