It’s hardly news that the Pittsburgh Penguins are a resilient hockey club. They’ve soldiered on despite playing most of the calendar year without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and built an 8-2-2 record this season despite several other significant injuries, with defenseman Zbynek Michalek (broken finger) and forward Tyler Kennedy (concussion) the latest regulars to go on the shelf.
Where the Penguins haven’t always demonstrated such bounce-back ability, however, is within the course of a 60-minute hockey game. They went all of last season without once coming from behind in a contest they were losing after two periods.
In the first month of this season, they’ve already improved that statistic by at least one.
Thursday, down 1-0 to the visiting New York Islanders, Pittsburgh came out looking for a big third period, only to see the Isles add to their lead just 45 seconds in. But the Penguins didn’t blink, with Chris Kunitz slicing the lead in half on the very next shift, then James Neal tying it on the power play shortly after that, en route to a 3-2 shootout victory.
“That was a tough play there. When you come out in the third down one, you want to get the jump on them, and they turned the momentum right around on us,” Neal said. “That’s when we picked it up – a big goal the next shift by Kuni [Chris Kunitz], and then we followed that up.”
“We surrendered a goal, and I liked the way we responded right after that,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “I liked the way we pushed for the next five minutes or so, and then getting the power play goal. The power play had been effective for us all night long, and it cashed in when we needed it.”
The sequence was reminiscent of the Penguins’ previous home game when, after the New Jersey Devils’ Patrik Elias scored a shorthanded goal on a blown penalty call where he should have been the man in the box, Kunitz and Jordan Staal quickly came the other way to negate the Devils’ momentum and take control of the game for an eventual 4-1 win.
Thursday’s win over the Islanders was another example of the Penguins refusing to be deterred when the breaks weren’t going their way. They had an early goal by Staal waved off due to goaltender interference by Matt Cooke. They had the better of the power play chances – five to two through the first two frames – and a 13-2 shot advantage in the second, but couldn’t find a way to convert.
“I think it was a game where we had a lot of opportunities, a lot of chances that didn’t bounce our way,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “But we came back with two great goals.”
That resilience and hard work has paid off in five straight wins for the Penguins. Getting back one of their stars in Malkin – who continues to struggle day-to-day with soreness in his surgically repaired knee – also helps to instill some extra confidence. He and Kunitz made a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play to open up Neal for his game-tying goal.
“[Malkin and Crosby] are both game-changing players, and any time they can go out and beat somebody one-on-one or one-on-two, any time you have that on your team, you can believe that you have a chance,” Kunitz said. “If it’s only one or two goals down, you can always fight back and claw your way into it. We battled back and got one, then we got the power play for the great play and put one home to tie it up. I think we carried most of the momentum there [through] the third.”
Malkin also notched the only goal in the shootout against the Islanders’ Rick DiPietro, who came in cold when Evgeni Nabokov wasn’t feeling well after overtime. And the Penguins had to demonstrate adaptability one more time, changing up their shootout plans for a goaltender with a different glove hand.
“Tonight was a spectacular one,” Bylsma said of Malkin’s shootout winner. “He had to change when DiPietro came out with the pokecheck; he just made an awesome move. I think he’s got a little more swagger [this season] trying some of the moves that he does have.”
The goaltending change was “a surprise for me, a surprise for the whole team,” Malkin said. “When I saw DiPietro, I couldn’t do my [planned] good move. I was surprised [when] he fell down, and I changed my way. I think it was a lucky goal.”
Lucky, perhaps – but, lately, the Penguins have been making plenty of their own luck, too.