It was a rough road to victory last night for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Buffalo Sabres, now 12-14-4, were hungry for a win and wanted the streaking Pens (21-8-2) for dinner. Zbynek Michalek saw the challenge coming.
“(The Sabres) have something to prove. They didn’t start their season well and they want to get back in the playoff picture. I’m sure they’re going to throw everything at us (Saturday), so we’ve got to make sure we are ready to go and just play our game. We have to worry about our game first. I believe if we play our game we can play against any team. So we’ve got to make sure we are ready to go, because like I said, they are playing good hockey, probably better than what they were playing when we saw them last time,” he told Pens reporter Michelle Crechiolo on Friday.
He may not have realized how deeply his words would resonate.
The game started off rather benign, with Wilkes-Barre call-up Dustin Jeffrey scoring his second NHL goal 6:43 into the first. Arron Asham followed at 9:31. The 2-0 lead seemed to ignite the Sabres – and that’s when tempers started flaring.
The remainder of the first period saw seven penalties, five of which were dealt to Penguins. Overall, this was a 17-penalty game, with the Pens taking an uncharacteristically high nine.
This is both good and bad news.
On the positive side, it is proof that Pittsburgh can – successfully – play a more physical, hard-hitting hockey game than we typically see them engage in. Goals from Alex Goligoski and Mike Rupp in the third period brought the lead up to 4-2, and Matt Cooke sealed the deal with an empty net goal for a final score of 5-2.
The Penguins are now on a 12-game win streak, and Sidney Crosby has managed to extend his point-scoring streak to 18 with a secondary assist on Goligoski’s goal.
It was an important game for defensemen and lower-line forwards as well. The fourth line in particular was highly productive, with Jeffrey, Rupp and Craig Adams scoring five points between them.
“It was a big game from that line,” Head Coach Dan Bylsma told the press in a post-game interview.
“Jeffrey gets his first game of the year and starts us off with a goal. Ben Lovejoy makes a good play coming down the wall, (Jeffrey) goes to the net and gets the goal. All game long their line was solid, and then they get a huge goal, three and half minutes left…that one sealed the deal for us.”
So what’s the bad news?
Last night felt eerily similar to Wednesday’s penalty-filled mess against Toronto, and although both match-ups ended with the Pens on top (and both with final scores of 5-2, oddly enough) allowing emotions to run wild is not a way to win games.
This is not to say that the Pens should turn the other cheek every time an opponent gets nasty. However, in both the Toronto and Buffalo games, one of the other team’s two goals was scored on a power play. Yes, these are low numbers, Pittsburgh has an outstanding penalty kill, and they still won – but this still amounts to half of the goals against in two games. If a team is being antagonistic, why reward them with such opportunity?
Being so frequently penalized also alters the flow of a game, which can be especially damaging when the Pens have all the momentum.
“I don’t know if there were circumstances that led up to (the nastiness) other than the fact that it was just a hard-fought game, two teams battling hard, and there was a little bit of chippiness. You didn’t see a lot of flow in the game because of the emotions that were there on both sides,” said Bylsma.
One such circumstance might have been Sabres defenseman Mike Weber punching Crosby in the face repeatedly when the two clashed about half way through the second period, an act that got the Pens’ blood boiling. Crosby was a major part of Wednesday’s frustration as well, as it was believed that the Maple Leafs were targeting him to throw the Penguins off of their game. While it is expected of the team to be protective of their captain, they cannot allow Crosby to be used as a tool for their own undoing on the ice.
The Penguins have to make sure they are able to rise above distractions rather than lose focus on the outstanding game they are playing this year.
“If you let it get to that point, it’s going to happen,” Crosby said last night in a post-game media scrum.
The Pens have proven that they can win any kind of hockey game, and when a team is this good, it would truly be shame to surrender to emotion.