Thursday in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Penguins left the Flyers shaking their heads when they stormed all the way back from a 4-1, first-period deficit to win the contest, 5-4. Two nights later in Toronto, the Maple Leafs nearly succeeded in doing the same thing to them.
Thursday, the Penguins were dominated in the opening frame by the Flyers, who outshot them 18-4 en route to that 4-1 lead. Saturday, Pittsburgh started captain Sidney Crosby’s first game in Toronto in more than three years with a bang, opening the scoring just 36 seconds in, outshooting the Leafs 13-5 and building a 3-1 lead by the first intermission.
But, much like the Penguins two nights before, the Leafs didn’t roll over. And it was the Penguins’ penalty kill – one of the NHL’s best over the past several years but just 23rd of 30 this season – that let them right back in.
“They get two shots, basically, on their [first two] power play[s] and those go into the net real quickly, and that was a big part of the game,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “They won the special teams battle in a big way today.”
“They have some skilled forwards that don’t need a lot of room or a lot of time,” Crosby said. “They were working hard to get back, and they did.”
And, when the puck landed on Phil Kessel’s stick as he skated toward the crease at 15:40 of the third period, the Leafs capped the comeback, tying the game at 4-4.
“He doesn’t miss from that area around the net,” said defenseman Kris Letang.
“We did it to the Flyers, and it seems now any [team] can come back,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “You’ve got to keep playing, keep your focus.”
The Penguins were able to hang on and avoid the Flyers’ fate, beating the Leafs 2-0 in the shootout behind goals from James Neal and Crosby, both of whom also scored in regulation, and a flawless performance from Fleury.
“I wasn’t happy to be beaten on four goals tonight, so I had to make sure we got that two points at the end,” Fleury said.
“It’s a fun building to play at for sure,” Crosby said. “They pushed hard. We probably deserved to finish that one off in regulation, but they kept coming.”
Pittsburgh is now on a four-game winning streak, leads the Atlantic Division and is second in the Eastern Conference with 34 points to Montreal’s 36. But the Penguins can’t deny that, for the first half of the season, their elite offense has been compensating for some glaring defensive deficiencies.
In 25 games played so far, the Penguins lead the NHL with an average of 3.56 goals per game – but their goals-against is another story. Much like their formerly stellar penalty kill, the Penguins’ goals-against is squarely in the league’s bottom third at No. 24, averaging an even three goals per game.
“I think that with special teams, penalty kill, it’s always about the next time over the boards,” Bylsma said. “Obviously, you let in a number of goals and those are concerns. It certainly is a big factor in the game. [Against Toronto] we’re minus two; we get two power play goals rather quickly on us, [then] a situation where we did have to step over the boards in the third and kill one off, which was a big kill for us in the game. That’s definitely something that’s a big part of where we’re at right now.”
“I think that’s something we need to work out,” Letang said. “There’s different areas where we got caught thinking too much. Maybe we’re so worried about different plays sometimes that we scramble; we get caught thinking too much and we don’t actually do something.”
Overall, however, with just 21 shots against them in regulation, the Penguins thought Saturday’s effort was a step in the right direction.
“I think tonight was better than a few games back; I thought it was a good team effort,” Fleury said. “I wasn’t happy with a few goals [personally], but I thought the team played well.”
“We didn’t allow them to pass the puck through the crease; they had to take the shots from far out [instead of] trying to crash the net,” Letang said. “I think, as a group, we did a good job.”
Letang also likes the Penguins’ model of having the defensemen join the rush – a system for which he feels the team’s current crop of blueliners is well-suited. Pittsburgh’s defensemen tallied six points on four goals Saturday, and Letang leads all players at his position with 24 points.
“I think the biggest thing is the mobility of our defensemen,” he said. “I think all the [defensemen] on our team can skate right now, and it helps a lot when we have those kinds of guys playing with Sid, Geno [Malkin], [Chris] Kunitz, Neal.”