With a 2-1 win in Columbus Friday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins snapped a three-game losing streak and hoped to start putting a largely uninspiring week behind them.
A frustrating, 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues Sunday was followed by the news that the Penguins’ injury situation – already worst in the NHL this season as well as in their franchise history – now included Evgeni Malkin. The star forward suffered a hairline fracture in his foot on his first shift versus the Blues and will miss 2-3 weeks, a timeline that includes the rest of the regular season and possibly into the first round of the playoffs.
Worse than the injury itself was its timing for Malkin, who, after struggling since a disappointing Olympics experience in his native Russia, seemed to be finding his game with four goals and six points in the previous two contests versus Detroit and Tampa Bay.
“He had a strong couple of games and, to get that news, it is disappointing,” Bylsma said. “We’d like him to remember and watch [those] last couple games, in terms of how he was playing, for two to three weeks from now.”
The Penguins followed up that effort by coming out strong against the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday, then running out of gas – largely due to their own inability to stay disciplined against a desperate team fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot. With five minor penalties, Pittsburgh gave Phoenix plenty of momentum, sacrificing one goal on the power play and one immediately after another had expired that were the difference in the Coyotes’ 3-2 win.
Head coach Dan Bylsma responded by giving winger Jussi Jokinen some time on the bench following his offensive-zone slashing penalty that led to the power-play goal. The team responded by convening a players-only meeting after the contest to discuss a disconcerting lack of composure, passion and pride with fewer than 10 games remaining until the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We’ve been talking about it for two weeks now; we’ve had [ill-advised penalties] happen several times,” said center Brandon Sutter. “It’s not any one guy; it’s a team thing. That’s a few nights in a row we’ve given too many chances like that, five-on-four, and it kind of disrupts the whole flow of the game. You don’t take those kinds of penalties in the playoffs, so you don’t take them now.”
Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik led the discussion, which addressed a specific lack of discipline in the offensive zone.
“Brooks talked about it after the game; it’s not like we’re taking penalties trying to keep out scoring chances or [making] desperation plays. It’s more just mental errors, and we’ve had our share this year, especially the past three weeks,” Sutter said. “It’s not something we’re proud of; we’ve got to correct it. We do have a veteran group here. We’re smarter than that, better than that.”
The Penguins responded with a better effort Thursday when they hosted the Los Angeles Kings, dropping the game by the same 3-2 score but playing with more structure and discipline. Pittsburgh gave the Kings only three power-play opportunities while drawing seven of their own, but were unable to find the difference-making goal with the man advantage.
“I think we just need to get back to the fundamentals,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi. “At times during the season it happens to every team, you get a little too fancy, and I think right now the important thing for us is that we try to move the puck the right way. Anytime you get moving east-west, good things usually don’t follow. If we can get back to the fundamentals of what made us successful, which is moving the puck quickly and north, we’ll find our game real quickly.”
The Penguins came closer to doing that Friday in Columbus, where they played a tight, defensive contest against another team fighting for a playoff spot, then pounced on their opportunities, scoring two goals less than a minute apart midway through the third period to win, 2-1, and break out of their three-game slump.
For Pittsburgh, one of the brightest spots of that contest was the return of winger Beau Bennett, whose broken wrist had kept him out of the lineup since November 22. Following a three-game conditioning stint with the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Bennett’s speed, puck possession and physicality led the way for the NHL club, and he was rewarded with the game-winning goal when defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, Bennett’s close friend and roommate, sprung him on a two-on-one break.
“I think [Penguins GM] Ray [Shero] is a pretty good scout; he takes credit for finding him in Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday,” Bylsma said. “That was a real strong game from Beau, real authoritative. I thought it was one of his better games I’ve ever seen him play, and that being his first game back. Hard on pucks, great through the neutral zone, attacked strong, made plays.”
The 2010 first-round draft pick said his rehabilitation program not only improved his wrist strength and overall conditioning, but helped him work on the finer points of his game.
“It was a lot of skating on my own, a lot of [working on] skill stuff with [strength and conditioning] Coach [Mike] Kadar, so it’s something that’s kind of grown my game even with being out,” Bennett said. “I felt pretty good out there.”
Starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury also proved critical to the Penguins’ turnaround, stopping 35 of 36 shots for his first win since a 2-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals March 11.
“It’s been a little while since I won so it was getting a little frustrating,” Fleury said. “I just tried to stick with my game, came out and made the stops. I’m just happy to get the win tonight.”
“The only one that gets by him is the one he wasn’t able to see,” Bylsma said. “I thought he was outstanding all game long in tough spots, make some big saves on deflections on power plays [where] he had to come up real big. I don’t know if you guys named him first star in the game or not, but he probably was.”
Most important for the Penguins – who host a tough, talented Chicago Blackhawks team Sunday night – the win in Columbus represented them finally finding the playoff-level intensity to their game that had eluded them in losing six of their previous eight.
“That was a playoff type of game and I thought, almost to a man, we stepped up,” Bylsma said. “I thought our defensemen, [particularly] Brooks Orpik and Robert Bortuzzo, the battle level and effort there in denying a pretty determined Columbus team. They’re fighting for their playoff spot and positioning, and I thought that was a really hard-fought game.
“We’re fighting for every inch we can get right now. I think yesterday [against the Kings] we had that in our game, but tonight was exactly what we’ve talked about and wanted in our game in terms of a playoff-type game and playoff-type intensity to our game. Going into the third period it was a 0-0 game, and we were able to come up with a hard-fought win.”
“I guess, when you look at the standings, we don’t have that desperation when it comes to the points, but I think this is the hardest time of year to play and it’s also the most rewarding and the most fun,” Scuderi said. “I think if we can manufacture that on our own to get ready for the postseason, which will be here sooner rather than later, we’ll be in the right spot.”