With Sunday’s 6-5 win over the Winnipeg Jets, the Pittsburgh Penguins became the NHL’s winningest team on home ice this season. The Penguins’ 19th win at CONSOL Energy Center was also their 12th in a row at home, where they haven’t lost since November 13 and have outscored opponents 80-46 this season.
The Penguins’ swagger at their home rink – added to a collection of gifted scorers – means they’ve found ways to win a few of those 19 where they’ve turned in less than stellar efforts. Against the Jets, for example, they found themselves down 2-0 after a lackluster first period, but came back in a four-minute span early in the second to take a 3-2 lead. Pittsburgh hardly played a clean game the rest of the way, trading goals with Winnipeg through the rest of the contest – but, by the latter half of the third period, defenseman Matt Niskanen had given them a 6-5 lead that stuck.
“I think we have that feeling in our room that, no matter what happens, we’re going to find ourselves in a game and, ultimately, win a game,” said forward James Neal, who keyed the 3-2 comeback with two goals in 34 seconds. “It’s a good feeling to have on the bench; it comes with confidence, and we’re playing with that right now.
“You never feel like you’re out of a game, and tonight was that. We definitely didn’t have our A game or our best foot forward, but we battled out there and Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] made some great saves at the right times and we got some big goals at the right times. All those things contribute to a win.”
Tuesday, when the Penguins hit the road for a three-game swing through western Canada, they showed that their resilience isn’t limited to home ice. This time, a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead evaporated into a 4-2 deficit, including two Canucks goals in a 17-second span of the third period that seemed to put the game away. But the Penguins once again proved that you can never count them out of a contest, with captain Sidney Crosby setting up then scoring goals 16 seconds apart – with the game-tying marker coming with just 54 seconds remaining in regulation – to force overtime and a shootout.
“Our goals [against] were costly mistakes, mental breakdowns. But, at the end, we just pressured, used our speed, used our skill,” said defenseman Kris Letang, who put home Crosby’s pass for the first of the two late goals. “We have a lot of power up front; we’re dangerous any time of the game. [Regardless of the situation], we just hang in there, and we proved it again tonight.”
Fleury, the league’s best shootout goalie, took it from there, stopping all three shooters he faced as Crosby scored the winner. Fleury leads all-time shootout statistics with a .773 save percentage and has stopped the last 16 attempts he’s faced, including 11 this year.
“Everybody stuck with their game plan and came back; that was huge,” Fleury said. “When your team does that, you want to try to help out and do something for them, so it’s good to win the shootout. It doesn’t matter what the score is with our team; I think we always believe we can come back and we can start with the next puck. I think our chance of winning is always there.”
“They come out in the third and get two quick goals and, all of a sudden, it turns into a pretty bleak situation for our team,” said head coach Dan Bylsma who, with his 233rd career victory, passed Eddie Johnston as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach. “We kept at the fight; we kept in it. There’s no quit. We come up with the six-on-five faceoff play to get a goal to get us within one. Then you look up and there’s a little over a minute left and you have a chance to tie it up, and we were able to get the goalie [off] and do it again.”
“You have to find a way to do that sometimes,” Crosby said. “You don’t want to put yourself in that position but, if you are faced with that, you need to find ways to get out of it. And, to be down two with that much time (1:11) left, we knew we had to get two quick ones and we found a way.”
The Penguins – who have gone 17-3 in their last 20 games to establish a seven-point cushion atop the Eastern Conference – finish their western Canada trip with back-to-back games in Edmonton and Calgary. Although the Oilers and Flames are two of the league’s bottom three teams, the Eastern Conference hasn’t fared well overall against the West this season. The Penguins have been an exception, carrying a 9-2 record against the Western Conference into Friday’s contest at Edmonton, but they won’t take the 29th-place Oilers for granted.
“We’re looking at a young, talented team that has a lot of skilled forwards, and we saw that about them [in a 3-2 Penguins win in Pittsburgh on October 15],” Bylsma said. “I see them as a dangerous group.”