With a patient, practiced wrister through the five-hole on Phoenix goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, Penguins rookie Mark Letestu scored the only goal of a shootout and salvaged two points from the team’s frustrating, three-game swing through the Western Conference.
“I’ve seen Mark take a lot of shootouts and be a go-to guy in that situation in the American Hockey League, so giving him a chance to go with a couple of the moves that he has, it was nice to see that go in,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
“It’s about as good as I could have planned, to get a chance to win a hockey game when the coach calls your number,” Letestu said. “My decision was made when Dan told me I was shooting; I’ve had success with that move, so I decided to stick to my guns.”
Pittsburgh’s 4-3 win over the Coyotes followed a 5-2 embarrassment in Dallas and a better-played, but still disappointing, 3-2 loss in Anaheim. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury played well enough against the Ducks to earn himself another start the following night in Phoenix – a vote of confidence from Penguins management as he works to break out of his season-long slump – but his leash proved short indeed when he fell into a 2-0 hole less than seven minutes in. Backup Brent Johnson came in and the Penguins mounted a comeback to tie the contest, then traded goals with the Coyotes again en route to the shootout.
“Obviously it’s not the result you want from your starting goaltender, and I felt like the best thing for our team at that point was to switch it up and get Johnny in there,” Bylsma said. “Marc has been a big-time goaltender and he’s got to be a big-time goaltender; he’s got to find that. In this situation, we needed Johnny to go in and make some saves and give us a chance to get our feet under us.”
While Bylsma tends toward playing the hot goaltender – and Johnson’s 6-1-1 record on the season versus Fleury’s 1-6 mark leaves little doubt about who that’s been – captain Sidney Crosby feels the only way for Fleury’s confidence to improve is for him to play. But talk of any disagreement between the two on Fleury’s handling is a non-story, Crosby said, as lineup decisions are solely in the hands of the coaching staff.
“I was never asked about the goaltending situation; I was asked about Flower’s confidence and what it would take for him to get his confidence back, and that’s when I said that he needs to get back in the net in order to do that,” Crosby said. “I didn’t have an opinion on the goaltending situation; that’s the coaching staff’s [decision].
“But as far as anybody’s confidence, usually that’s what it takes. Whether you haven’t scored in a few games or whatever the case is, it usually takes getting back in the swing of things to get that back. And it doesn’t usually take one game; it usually takes a few. But by no means was I taking a certain stance or making a push for any goalie to play.”
If and when Fleury will turn his season around will be a key issue for the 7-7-1 Penguins who now begin a stretch where they’ll play five of their next six games at home. So will the sputtering power play which, after an 0-for-29 drought, converted once in each of the last two games.
“We can’t change the past, but we certainly felt like we played a couple of good games there to end the trip, so we think we’re moving in the right direction,” Crosby said. “If we play that way, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win a lot of games.”
And, after falling behind 2-0 in Dallas, 3-0 in Anaheim and 2-0 in Phoenix, the Penguins’ primary takeaway from the road trip was that they’ve simply got to stop making things so hard on themselves early on. Repeating those mistakes could be a recipe for disaster this week as Pittsburgh faces off against Boston, which has its own hot goaltender in former Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, and Tampa Bay, which boasts plenty of offensive firepower in its lineup.
“It’s not that difficult,” Crosby said. “We know we have to compete and execute, and the last couple games we’ve done a better job of that, but we’ve got to give ourselves a chance every time we’re out there. We can’t have games where we fall behind like we have in the last few.”
The players hoped, however, that the way they battled back in the last two contests gives them something to build on.
“We would’ve liked to have gotten more than two points, but I think it’s starting to show through, the character in this room,” Letestu said. “With the adversity we’ve gone through here, it would’ve been easy to kind of put the head down and mail it in, but I think we battled through both of those games.
“Anaheim, unfortunately, we came up a little bit short, but Phoenix, we got the result we needed. The starts are something we’re going to have to clean up, but hopefully the intensity through the ends of the games is what continues.”