The Pittsburgh Penguins’ winning streak ended at eight games Wednesday in Toronto, just 24 hours after they stole a win from the Maple Leafs on home ice to keep the streak alive.
The 1-0 loss – Pittsburgh’s first since January 11 – came in a tight, hard-hitting contest where the lone goal was scored with just six minutes remaining in the third period. It was a far cry from the Penguins’ 5-4 shootout win the night before, which was filled with odd-man rushes, defensive lapses and a mostly lackluster effort from Pittsburgh that necessitated a 35-save performance from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and a three-goal comeback in the second half of the final frame.
Tuesday, with the Penguins still on a roll, their luck was such that the game-tying goal came not off the stick of the NHL’s hottest player, but his shoulder. With seven seconds remaining, Evgeni Malkin got in front of the net in time to deflect James Neal’s blast from the right circle past Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson, sending the game to a shootout – where Malkin also got the decisive goal.
“Geno in the clutch there, he was in the right spot going to the cage and got us a huge goal, 6-on-5, at the end,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “But that wasn’t a lot of what we’d like to see on the ice. They played extremely well, extremely fast and made it really tough on our team. Looking up and seeing 4-1 [early in the third], it was fairly indicative of how the game was going at that point in time.
“I guess you’ve got to win a lot of different ways, and I’m not sure we deserved the fate we got tonight. We’ll take the win.”
Ironically, a night later, when the scene shifted from Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the Penguins probably deserved a better fate than the one they got.
Both teams slowed down the pace and tightened up the defense. The night before, the two clubs combined for 74 shots; this time, the scoring chances dropped and the physicality rose, with a combined 79 hits.
And – with the exception of a goal by forward Chris Kunitz that was waved off for being kicked in – the Penguins couldn’t find the net, making the tally by Toronto’s Clarke MacArthur late in the third the difference.
“I just think it was a little bit tighter-checking of a game, and that nullified some of the speed on both teams,” Bylsma said. “There wasn’t nearly as much room out there to play the game tonight and, as a result, there weren’t as many opportunities or scoring chances.”
“We were obviously a lot better [than Tuesday],” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “It’s funny how we probably didn’t deserve to even be in that game last night and we got two points out of it. Tonight, we probably deserve better, but we come out on the losing end.”
Perhaps most disappointing for the Penguins was wasting a strong performance from backup netminder Brent Johnson, who bounced back from being pulled in his last two starts to keep the Leafs scoreless for most of the game.
“He’s well-respected in the room. Any time he’s in there, you want to play well, especially when you see him battling that hard,” Orpik said. “It’s disappointing to not get any goals for him. It happened a lot last year, too, where he was in net and he’d give up one goal and lose, 1-0.”
“Definitely a step in the right direction for myself,” Johnson said. “I tried to simplify things out there, and things were working pretty good tonight. I felt confident; the guys played well. One little chance for [the Leafs] and they made good, and kudos to [Toronto goaltender James] Reimer.”
Pittsburgh’s winning streak lifted the club from just outside of a playoff spot to a solid fifth place in the Eastern Conference. But – with just seven points separating the Penguins from the eighth-place Devils as well as the first-place New York Rangers – they can’t afford to take much for granted. A matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins looms next, and Pittsburgh is ready to get back into the win column.
“Hopefully we can just carry this on,” Orpik said. “Move on to Saturday.”