One player has been an anchor of the Penguins’ blueline and penalty kill this season but, despite his defensive focus, didn’t expect to go his first 58 games in Pittsburgh without registering a goal.
The other was acquired a week before the trade deadline to inject some physicality and offense into the lineup and, although he’d done plenty of the former and had opportunities for the latter, had yet to put up a point in six games since coming to Pittsburgh.
Their circumstances may have been significantly different, but both Zbynek Michalek and James Neal wore ear-to-ear grins and a palpable sense of relief after finally finding the back of the net Tuesday in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
“I think both those guys were pretty relieved and had a pretty big smile on their face to get their first,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
And both goals were big. Neal’s came early in the second period, with the Sabres holding a 1-0 lead. Center Jordan Staal won a faceoff back to defenseman Deryk Engelland, who threw it toward the crease where Neal was waiting with time to spare.
“We work on faceoff plays all the time, so I was just trying to go to the net,” Neal said. “Engo made a quick backhand pass there, and I got lucky and got a good bounce. It was great to get that goal and get the monkey off your back.”
A few minutes later, Michalek showed a flair for the dramatic on his first tally in black and gold, taking a pass from Neal at the point and blasting a slapshot past Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller. That gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead and proved to be the game winner.
“It’s been a while,” said Michalek, whose last goal came in January 2010 against the New Jersey Devils. “I remember the last one was against [Martin] Brodeur, and I’m going to remember this one for the rest of my life, too.”
“Z’s [goal] probably brought more smiles, to see him get a shot that finds its way through, and there wasn’t a lot of room there,” Bylsma said. “He’s been a big part of our team and has been playing great defensively for us, [and on the] PK.”
Both players also registered an assist on the night – Neal on Michalek’s goal and Michalek on forward Mark Letestu’s insurance tally with seven minutes remaining. That two-goal lead was a rare luxury for the Penguins, who have gone to overtime or the shootout five times in their past six contests.
“We wanted to close the game in 60 minutes this time,” Michalek said. “We would have been happy to win with the lead we had going into the third; we were up 2-1, and we said, just keep it simple, play good defensively and don’t give up anything. I think we did a really good job.
“Every game lately seems to be a one-goal game, so it was nice to get that lead at the end and not stress again about getting scored on in the last minute.”
Whether they’re racking up points one or two at a time, the Penguins have been consistent enough to remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference standings. Currently in fourth place, they’re just two behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the Atlantic Division – and conference – lead.
That’s pretty impressive, if not downright remarkable, for a team that’s endured a freakish run of injuries since the start of the year. Even better, although they’re still without several of their biggest names – forward Evgeni Malkin is gone for the season, defenseman Brooks Orpik should be back by the playoffs and there’s still no word on whether captain Sidney Crosby will be able to return from his concussion this year – the Penguins are finally, for the most part, getting healthy.
“We’re playing well against teams that are hot or really good hockey teams,” Bylsma said. “And for us to be able to go out and play our game, put teams back on their heels and play really well defensively speaks volumes as to where our team’s at.
“We think we can win any given night, given the way we’re playing. And just to get wins in these situations, especially at this time of year and where we’re at, we’ve done it the right way – battling, playing as a group, playing together. It’s good to see us stack up some wins here.”
Getting contributions from some different players on the scoresheet can only help that cause.
“I think when you press, you start doing a little too much and that’s when you get away from things,” Neal said. “You know it’s going to come as long as you’re getting chances and doing the right thing. I felt good [tonight], and every game I’ve just been feeling more and more comfortable.”