After losing four of five and scoring just once in each of their last five losses, the Pittsburgh Penguins are on a three-game winning streak. They’ve netted 11 goals in those wins over the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals and New York Islanders and turned in a 4-0 performance at Washington on Wednesday that might have been their most complete effort of the season.
“I don’t know if you expect to hop out to that kind of [17-6] shot advantage but, certainly, the pace and how we played was excellent,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We got some real good scoring opportunities.”
The Penguins also shut down three Capitals power-play chances and limited the high-powered Washington offense – tied with Pittsburgh with an average of 2.87 goals per game – to 18 shots. They also remained committed to the defensive effort after building a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period.
“’Smothering’ is always a word we use,” Bylsma said. “There was a lot of good in this game but [particularly] the third period and only giving them four shots against and playing solid the second half of the game.
“There were still plenty of opportunities to go back the other way and score some goals, which we did, but we didn’t give up a lot. We didn’t give them opportunities to get speed and space and I thought it was tough for them to get through. It was smothering and the guys did a great job.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has also been smothering this season, bouncing back from a disappointing playoff that saw his lose his starting job to backup Tomas Vokoun. With Vokoun lost to a medical condition this year, Fleury has carried the load, starting in all but a handful of contests, and his 13 wins are tied for second-best in the NHL. His 1.90 goals-against average is also good for third amongst goalies who have played in 15 or more games, and he’s been a consistent, well-positioned presence in the Penguins net.
“A lot of pucks seemed to be hitting him in the chest,” Bylsma said after Fleury’s 4-0 shutout at Washington. “There were [a number of] opportunities he came up big on; he was solid and sure.”
“They have a good team and that’s why we’re fighting for the first spot in our division,” Fleury said. “It’s always a good rivalry with them, but the bottom-line thing you’ve got to focus on is the win and we did that.
“I thought their chances were mostly [limited to] power plays. Other than that, I thought everybody helped out. Everybody came back in the zone and helped out around the net, the D was blocking shots and taking rebounds away, so that was a big help.”
The Penguins weren’t nearly as strong defensively Friday when they hosted the New York Islanders, giving the Isles a 35-34 edge in shots and letting a 3-1 lead slip away by surrendering two goals 1:21 apart midway through the second period. But Pittsburgh showed signs of being a more resilient team than during their recent slump, leaving the Islanders empty-handed on six power-play chances and settling down a back-and-forth game in the third period.
“We have the lead so they start taking chances, and then we get sucked into playing that style of game,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “They’re pinching a lot and we’re getting an odd-man rush and, instead of managing the puck, we’re taking chances and kind of throwing the puck everywhere. And, when you play that kind of game, whoever’s going to score the last goal is going to win. We were flirting with danger there and we realized that in the third.”
And, with 1:16 remaining, it was the Penguins who found a way to score the last goal – from Crosby, naturally, taking a feed from his linemates and finding the net in his typical, flair-for-the-dramatic style.
“It was a good forecheck. Kuni [Chris Kunitz] got a hit to separate the guy from the puck, and then Duper [Pascal Dupuis] found me there on the side of the net,” Crosby said.
“[Those big goals] feel good and that wasn’t our best game. We had a lot of chances, probably could’ve put it away early, but they hung around. They generate a lot; we gave them a few turnovers and they’re a good offensive team. To find a way to win that one is important.”
The 4-3 win also featured backup netminder Jeff Zatkoff getting his first NHL victory – Fleury gets the start in his hometown of Montreal on Saturday – and star center Evgeni Malkin finally finding the net after 15 games without a goal on a feed from linemate James Neal, who passed up his own chance on a breakaway.
“I gave James some grief when he came back to the bench; he should’ve shot that one,” Bylsma said. “That was one of those 3-on-1 execution plays and he had a great opportunity to shoot the puck and he’s a shooter. He elected to go to Geno, and it did find its way to the back of the net. I know it was a good moment for him, getting the result and getting the goal; Evgeni’s played some real good hockey and done some good things. [That] was a big moment for him and, next time, James should shoot it.”
Despite the attention paid to Malkin’s goal drought, however, the 27-year-old Russian could hardly be accused of slumping. He’s netted 14 assists in those 15 games, and that’s required a special kind of individual resilience, Crosby said.
“I think it’s easy to get frustrated; the expectation is that he’s going to score more often, and that pressure’s there,” Crosby said. “But for being a little frustrated, as anyone would be, he’s found ways to contribute.
“That’s not easy, and I think that’s something that could be overlooked. He’s helped the guys around him; he’s created a lot offensively. And I think, now that he’s got that one, he’ll start seeing them go in a lot more.”