If the Pittsburgh Penguins have a successful second half of the season, they may well look at a mid-January visit to Florida as the pivotal moment in their year.
Beginning with Friday’s morning skate in Miami, at which every player emerged wearing a homemade captain’s C or, in the case of Evgeni Malkin, a Russian K, in “a show of solidarity” for Sidney Crosby – a response to a Pittsburgh newspaper column suggesting the locker room was divided over whether the captain should be playing through his current concussion symptoms – and ending with an emphatic leadership performance by Malkin on Sunday in Tampa, the Penguins ended their six-game losing streak in convincing fashion.
“We talked about it this morning and the guys said, ‘We need 20 leaders,’ and I think they did come together,” said head coach Dan Bylsma following his team’s 4-1 win in Florida. “I think we liked the way we played [in Wednesday’s 1-0 loss] in Washington, we liked the way we played as a team, we liked the way we responded, and we certainly wanted to keep going in that direction. And I think, tonight, you saw 20 leaders on the ice.”
Friday’s contest against the Panthers began as a microcosm of the Penguins’ recent struggles, after a first period in which they outshot Florida 18-6 but came away without a goal. This time, however, Pittsburgh got a bit of good luck for a change, when forward Steve Sullivan cashed in on a misplayed puck by Panthers goaltender Scott Clemmensen to open the scoring early in the second.
“Maybe we needed to get a little bit of a miscue and a fortunate goal to get us started there, to get us on the right track, after the first period [where] we hit the post four times at least, and you’d like one of those to go in to gain on how you’re playing,” Bylsma said.
“We kept shooting the puck, and good things happen when you shoot the puck,” said forward James Neal.
The Penguins fired a total of 41 shots at Clemmensen and added goals by Malkin, Tyler Kennedy and Neal, while Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury turned away 25 of 26 Panthers shots, including two big chances in the second period that could have made it a 1-1 game and given Florida momentum.
“They didn’t have a lot of shots at that point and those were tremendous opportunities, point-blankers,” Bylsma said. “On the bench, you could feel that you just got two big saves from your goaltender, and I think it buoyed us. And, once we were able to get [our] second one, I think we really cashed in on those two saves by Flower.”
“It’s obviously a good feeling to get out of a slump like that; it’s been a long time since a win,” Neal said. “But we did the right things leading up to this game to get this win. We’ve got to keep going, keep doing the right things and stay on the right track.”
Pittsburgh’s next opportunity to do that came Sunday afternoon at Tampa Bay, where the Penguins jumped out to a 2-0 lead midway through the first, added another tally early in the third, then watched the Lightning storm back with three goals in five minutes to tie the hockey game.
“Tampa’s a good team and they play all 60 minutes. They have great leadership and they can score,” Malkin said. “We just relaxed for five minutes after our goal and it’s a tied game. We need to play the whole game.”
Fortunately for the Penguins, Malkin was prepared to do just that, responding with a natural hat trick in the third period to give Pittsburgh a 6-3 win.
“That’s the way we want our team to respond any time we [give up] a few goals,” Neal said. “Obviously Geno’s a leader on this team and a huge part of it.”
With a five-point effort – he also contributed assists on linemate Neal’s two power play goals – Malkin moved into second place among the NHL’s scoring leaders, just a point behind Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Malkin said. “We played a great game and we have two points.”
Led by the top line of Malkin, Neal and Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh exploded for 10 goals in their two-game Florida sweep, after scoring a total of six goals throughout their six-game losing streak. Now, as they return home to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, they hope that scoring – and winning – will beget more of the same.
“We had to turn this thing around somehow, and I got that goal in Florida and it gives you a boost, and we got a win,” Neal said. “And, when you’re winning games, you have that confidence to score goals, you have confidence to play the right way and do the right things. When you’re in a slump, it’s tough to score goals and we weren’t generating offense.”
“It’s been a little frustrating, definitely, at times. Guys were playing well; we just couldn’t win games,” Fleury said. “[It’s a] good relief.”