When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins faced off for the first time this season Tuesday, the contest was billed as a clash of two of the Eastern Conference’s elite. A measuring stick game. A good test.
After 60 minutes, the Penguins had found a way to score the hockey equivalent of an A by emerging with the W.
For the first 53-plus minutes of the game, however, the Bruins were putting on a shutdown hockey clinic. The Penguins were doing a lot of things right, even doubling up Boston in shots on goal, but few of those qualified as strong scoring chances. With the minutes ticking away, the Bruins appeared to be comfortably in command with a 2-0 lead, and backup netminder Anton Khudobin looked to be headed toward a shutout.
The Penguins, however, were undeterred. They kept coming, kept shooting – and finally, with 6:18 left, one went in.
“I think it’s a great learning tool for us,” said forward Chris Kunitz, who scored it, “to be able to play [almost] 55 minutes without getting a goal and just keep coming, be able to get three quick ones and turn the tide of the game.”
Up until that point, not even the Penguins’ high-octane power play could break through the Bruins’ system despite four opportunities, including more than a minute of five-on-three time.
“We know their style is back pressure, push guys down into the zone and their D back off,” Kunitz said. “They give you the shots from the outside, [so] we were looking for passes off the pads and trying to get stuff in the slot, [but] they did a great job of clearing it.
“We knew we needed to put a lot of pucks toward them; I think they’re a team that might get outshot lots of games, but they have a great structure, and it took us a while to break it.”
“You know you’re playing a team that doesn’t give up a lot of goals, and it seemed like every time we had a good opportunity, they were up to the task,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We just kind of felt like we were playing for the first goal. And I think we broke through that with enough time to look up and say, we’ve got to keep pushing here. Our team felt, at that point, like we were going to get another goal.”
A little more than four minutes later, they had gotten two. Both came courtesy of center Brandon Sutter, who helped the Penguins begin their current, six-game winning streak with another two-goal effort in Montreal, including the overtime game-winner.
“To get a couple there late is a good feeling, especially against a team like [Boston] that’s pretty good defensively and doesn’t give you much,” Sutter said. “There’s not a lot of room in their end. They intercept a lot of passes and they’ve got big, strong D down there.”
That was also true on the game-winning goal, where Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk took away Sutter’s planned pass to Sidney Crosby as Crosby went to the net.
“As soon as I got the puck, I saw him and I was thinking pass, but the D-man was kind of in the lane. I think he went right down,” Sutter said. “So I either had to make a really nice pass or just shoot it. It’s just a read and react; it happens pretty quick. I think Sid will be all right, though; I don’t think he’s too worried about it.”
Bylsma liked his club’s defensive effort, too. But he especially liked what he learned about their resilience.
“[Boston’s] a tough team to play against. They play well defensively, and their penalty kill was good against our power play,” he said. “But I like the fact that our team kept playing really well with the puck and trying to get to the offensive zone, trying to get behind their defense. And I think when you give up just 16 shots to a team, you’re doing something right on the defensive side.
“We kept pushing and kept playing. We didn’t let frustration set in if we didn’t score on an opportunity, and we kept feeling that way on the bench.”