It wasn’t how they envisioned it by any measure. But, with their 6-5 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thanksgiving eve, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally succeeded in gutting out a comeback attempt that fell just short in Montreal and Boston a few days before.
“That’s not the way we draw it up, but we found a way to stick with it,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think it was so ugly that it was kind of easy to forget; it was just so bad that there’s really no way to describe it.”
Crosby was referring to the Leafs’ two goals in the opening minute of the second period, which quickly turned a 2-1 Toronto lead into a 4-1 laugher.
“To get scored on twice in the first shift of the second, it was a pretty bad feeling,” Crosby said. “I think we were probably so upset with making it that easy with the mistakes we made that every single one of us tried to stick with it and get back in it somehow.”
Those mistakes included eight Penguins giveaways on the night – even goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was assessed with two, and head coach Dan Bylsma needed only the third Toronto goal to decide he’d seen enough of Pittsburgh’s starting netminder for the evening. Backup Jeff Zatkoff came in for the first relief appearance of his NHL career and the team in front of him went to work, going three-for-five on the power play and outshooting the Leafs an astonishing 17-0 in the third period, 2-0 in the overtime and 48-24 in the game.
“After the second we talked in the locker room and said, ‘just play right and spend more time in the offensive zone,’” said center Evgeni Malkin. “I think we all came thinking it’s not over.”
“I give everyone credit for sticking with it, because that first 25 minutes was as ugly as it gets,” Crosby said. “I think we knew we had a lot of time left and, fortunately, we stuck with it, drew some power plays and took advantage of them. To get as many shots as we did in the third and to not allow them one in the third and overtime, that says a lot about what we were trying to do.”
Then, after not facing a shot for more than an hour at the time, Zatkoff shut the door on all three Toronto attempts in the shootout, while Crosby and Malkin scored to put the game away for the Penguins. The shootout winner capped another dominant effort for Malkin, who leads the NHL in November with 20 points and 17 assists. He and linemate James Neal – who scored his fifth goal in three games on one of his team-leading 10 shots on the night – are 1-2 in scoring since Neal returned from injury November 9, combining for 30 points.
With two goals in regulation – and another waved off due to a high stick – it was Malkin’s first multi-goal game since March 2012, coming three games after he snapped a 15-game stretch without a goal.
“He was dominant; that line was generating a lot,” Crosby said. “I think the fact that he got that first one, that monkey is off his back and he can play and he looks like he’s having a lot of fun out there. He’s not thinking about it – he’s shooting when he needs to shoot, passing when he needs to pass, and it’s good for us.”
“Of course, when you score, you have more confidence,” Malkin said. “Now I feel so much better and my line, I think, we play better every game. Just play the same and have fun.”
Four Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins are also having fun – and the chance to show they belong on a big-league roster – as forwards Chris Conner, Andrew Ebbett and Jayson Megna and defenseman Simon Despres were recalled earlier in the day to fill in for what’s become a rapidly growing list of Penguins on injured reserve.
The biggest opportunity goes to Despres, who has struggled to find the consistency to make himself a mainstay on the big club’s blueline. Now, with two of the team’s top four D – Paul Martin (fractured tibia) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) on injured reserve for most, if not all, of the rest of 2013, Despres has the chance to carry his continued development in the AHL to the Penguins.
“For sure it was a little [disappointing], but go back down and work harder and come back stronger, that was my mindset,” Despres said. “I was on the first PK unit and playing against the other teams’ top lines, working on being good defensively and playing a lot of minutes. It definitely helped [me] get some confidence. [John Hynes, Wilkes-Barre head coach] just said, ‘you’ve been playing solid, so play the same way.’”
“I think the injuries to Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin just underscore the depth of the organization and what we have on defense,” Bylsma said. “For Simon it’s going to be a big opportunity for him to step in and play meaningful minutes, and I thought tonight [he] was excellent. I thought he did a great job of stepping in against a team that has some speed. He showed he can defend, showed he can be physical down low and he executed with the puck as well, coming out of the D zone.
“I think the opportunity for him is going to be significant, and the consistency with which he steps over the boards and does that, night in and night out, we’re going to need that.”
The Penguins as a whole will try to build on their comeback performance when they travel to play the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers Friday and Saturday.
“That’s important, games like this where you desperately needed to get those big goals and get them fairly often,” Crosby said. “That’ll definitely build our confidence.”
“I thought we pushed really hard,” Bylsma said. “It was probably the best 25-30 minutes of hockey we’ve played in doing so.”