Brandon Sutter wasn’t supposed to be a Pittsburgh Penguin when they visited the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks Friday.
The third-line center, in his second year with the club, was part of a trade-deadline offer to the Vancouver Canucks in the Penguins’ pursuit of Ryan Kesler, who they hoped could help them return to the “big-three center” model that made them difficult to defend against when they had Jordan Staal, Sutter’s predecessor, in that role.
“It’s hard to see someone go through that, and I don’t think it’s very easy to have to deal with,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think he’s handled it amazing; the way he’s played through all that has been incredible. I think we’re all glad it’s over, but I think he is especially.”
Sutter shook off the Penguins’ willingness to part with him and became a key part of the team turning around a two-game West Coast swing that could have been an enormous disappointment.
After watching a 2-0 lead evaporate into a 5-3 loss in San Jose the night before, the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins headed to Anaheim with something to prove. Giving up the game’s first goal just 3:54 into the contest and being outshot 23-7 over the first two periods, therefore, was probably not exactly what they had in mind.
But the Penguins battled back in the third, taking the play to the Ducks, besting them in shots, 7-5, and drawing a mid-frame penalty that helped them rally to a 2-2 tie. After playing an even overtime period, it was Sutter – along with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – who came through in the shootout to lift Pittsburgh to a 3-2 win.
“We didn’t start great tonight, but to finish the way we did in the second half is great,” Sutter said. “I think we battled hard, played two good teams the last two nights and eventually got a win out of it. For the most part we thought we played pretty well, but tonight our start was a little slow and last night our finish was a little slow. But we found a way, battled and it’s a great win for us. It’s been a good trip.”
Sutter was a key part of the tenacity the Penguins brought to the Anaheim comeback, but perhaps nobody battled harder over the two games than the Penguins’ netminders, who faced veritable shooting galleries. Backup Jeff Zatkoff got the start Thursday against the Sharks and stopped 43 of 47 shots to keep the contest close, despite Pittsburgh’s lackluster second half. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, withstood the Ducks’ barrage in the first two periods to give his club a chance to come back.
“Sometimes it’s tilted like that and doesn’t feel good but, as long as you keep yourself in it, you’ve got a chance and we were able to do that tonight,” Crosby said. “The first two periods we weren’t great, so [Fleury] definitely held us in it. In the third I thought we went after it more, but he … allowed us to get ourselves back in the game.”
With the Canucks electing to keep Kesler at the deadline, the Penguins added to their forward depth by acquiring veterans Marcel Goc from the Florida Panthers and Lee Stempniak from the Calgary Flames for draft picks. The additions, while minor, should significantly upgrade the Penguins’ bottom six, which has been largely ineffective this season. Both players are known for being highly versatile, able to play on both sides of the puck and in all situations.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think there was a deal there to be made [with Vancouver],” said GM Ray Shero. “Going into this deadline, a lot of the focus media-wise was on Ryan Kesler, and he’s a real good player, but I think our goal was to try to increase our depth up front and help our forward group, and I think we’ve accomplished that and not touched anybody off our roster. With the [Pascal] Dupuis injury, with the Beau Bennett injury, it was important for us to try to do that and, hopefully, it makes us a better, deeper team.”
Despite the lack of a high-profile acquisition at the deadline, Crosby said the best additions to the Penguins’ roster might be yet to come as players like Bennett (wrist) and defenseman Paul Martin (hand) are expected to return down the stretch.
“We have some injuries, so that’s almost like adding a couple guys right there,” Crosby said. “We know we need to play better as a group, and that’s up to us, something we feel is important. But, that being said, I think with the guys we have we’re confident, and [Goc and Stempniak] are going to provide a lot of depth for us; they’re good additions to our team.”
After a day off in California Saturday, the Penguins were scheduled to fly back east Sunday and practice in Washington, D.C., that evening in preparation for a home-and-home set with the rival Capitals. And they hope the grit they showed Friday night in Anaheim gave them something to build on.
“I think we’re trying to evaluate ourselves based on how we’re playing and not always the result,” Crosby said. “You’re going in to win, but you also want to do things right, and I think we did some good things [in Anaheim], better than we might’ve done in the second half of the game [at San Jose], and maybe didn’t make those big mistakes that hurt us.
“[The Ducks are] a good hockey team and you really have to work for your chances, so we did a good job of that and, hopefully, it’s something we can build off of. We know that, however many games are left here, it will be important to make sure we’re playing the right way going into the playoffs.”