The Defensive pairing of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin had a rough end to Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss against the New York Rangers Monday. Michalek’s fall in the neutral zone gave the Rangers a two-on-one break, and Martin couldn’t find a way to limit the scoring chance that ended up in the back of the Penguins’ net.
Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks, head coach Dan Bylsma gave that pair a vote of confidence by putting them in the starting lineup. And they, along with the rest of the Penguins defense, responded in a 3-1 win.
“Tonight was one of Z’s best games,” Bylsma said of Michalek, a marquee free agent signing for the Penguins last summer. “He was a warrior out there, defending positional-wise, puck battle-wise, on the penalty kill, out there against their good players. He was a force, taking away time and space, and that’s what he does well. The battle level out there from him and Brooks Orpik was a factor.”
Orpik, Michalek and Martin were the team’s leaders in ice time, owing in part to the significant time Pittsburgh spent on the penalty kill. The Penguins allowed the Canucks five chances with the man advantage and not only shut down all of them, but picked up a shorthanded goal of their own.
“Special teams are a big part of [Vancouver’s] success, and their power play is really dangerous,” Byslma said. “Our PK did an outstanding job of taking away their time and space, being aggressive and making good reads. We got blocked shots from our forwards and from our defense.
“When their guys are leaving the ice a little frustrated, then you’re doing a job out there, and they came up big. And to get the [shorthanded] goal means we win the special teams tonight. It was a big part of the game.”
Orpik led his team’s physical game with six hits and, along with Kris Letang, co-led in sacrificing his body with five blocked shots.
“They’re probably one of the better teams in the league, record-wise and personnel-wise,” Orpik said. “And we knew they had a really good power play, so we knew it would be key to stay out of the box, which we didn’t do such a good job at, but the PK was really good. We just tried to limit their chances off of turnovers; I thought we managed the puck pretty well, for the most part, and didn’t really give them too many great opportunities.”
And when Vancouver did get chances, Pittsburgh’s last line of defense, its goaltender, was up for the challenge. Marc-Andre Fleury continued to roll in his fourth consecutive start, stopping 29 of 30 shots and shaking off his prolonged rough beginning to the season with a 3-0-1 record over the past week.
“I feel good. I feel more confident, I feel better between the pipes, and it feels every night like we have the chance to win,” Fleury said.
Fleury also praised Michalek, Martin and the rest of the defense in front of him: “I think I saw most of [the shots]. There weren’t too many guys in front, because our guys did a good job moving them so I could see the puck. And those two guys do a great job getting the puck out of the zone quickly and blocking a lot of shots for me.”
Max Talbot, who scored the shorthanded goal and assisted on one from Sidney Crosby, is happy to see Fleury finding his groove.
“I’m just happy that the media doesn’t have to talk about him every morning; he’s back on his game,” Talbot said. “It’s great for the team just to be able to concentrate and do our stuff, and Flower’s been solid every time he’s been in the net for the last couple of games. He’s a real leader; he’s having fun out there and it’s a boost for us.
“Hockey is definitely a mental sport. You don’t lose your skills all of a sudden but, sometimes, you need to work the mind. It took a little bit of time, but we definitely need him to win and he’s shown us that.”
The team as a whole has shown resilience since bottoming out in a third-period debacle against the Boston Bruins a week ago Wednesday.
“I feel it started before Wednesday; it started during the [Western Conference] road trip, when we were like, ‘OK, let’s play our style of hockey,’” Talbot said. “And, for the past six games now, we’ve been playing pretty solid hockey. We’ve been progressing and building on that, and it’s showing, game after game.”