Pens Prove Themselves in Colorado

It’s been a rough stretch for the Penguins. Having lost four of their last five games, they arrived in the Mile High City in dire need of elevation – and we’re not talking about the altitude.

The injury list–now including forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Mark Letestu, Chris Kunitz, Dustin Jeffrey, Arron Asham and Eric Tangradi–has left a gaping hole in the team’s roster. Despite the skill and hard work coming from AHL call-ups, things were just not working out on the ice.

After Sunday’s loss to the New York Rangers, however, the Pens had two full days to reflect and regroup. Whatever they did during that time, it worked, leading to a 3-2 overtime victory on Head Coach Dan Bylsma’s two-year anniversary. Yet while a lot seems to have improved, there are still some flaws that cannot be overlooked.

The first period was fast-paced, with few whistles blown. The Pens were struggling to hold onto the puck for a while, but then Bylsma called a time out and put offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski and Paul Martin on the ice. They connected and got the puck to AHL forward Brett Sterling, allowing another call-up, Joe Vitale, to put it in the net for his first NHL goal. (Martin got the secondary assist.)

“I had a burst of speed going,” Vitale said to the press. “Sterling came over the blue line and their defenseman got caught outside the dots. I cut to the middle with speed. Sterling made a great pass and I caught it on my backhand. I gave the goaltender one look and didn’t see much open so I tried ripping it as hard as I could, and the next thing I know I saw the red light go on. It was exciting.”

Sterling has made a clear impact, logging four points (two goals and two assists) in his four games played. He shows a lot of promise and confidence playing in the NHL.

The first period saw no penalties doled out to either team, so going into the second, the Pens were hoping for some power play chances. They did end up with the man advantage twice, but failed to capitalize. The penalty kill, however, has also improved since Sunday’s poor showing against the Rangers, and both of the Avalanche’s opportunities were smothered.

Colorado, however, scored twice in the middle period, with goals coming from forward Chris Stewart and defenseman Cameron Gaunce. The game was tied 2-2, and both teams were skating with an urgent, desperate pace. The Avs are at the bottom of the standings in the West and are on a lengthy losing streak, while Pittsburgh needs to learn to play through their injuries before they begin to drop from the list of strong Stanley Cup contenders.

Finally, with about five minutes remaining, forward Jordan Staal got a beautiful shot behind Avs’ goalie Peter Budaj, with help from forward Nick Johnson (another AHLer) and defenseman Kris Letang. In the last few minutes, the Pens killed two penalties that overlapped for a 38-second 5-on-3, and the third period began with a tie.

Despite Colorado being penalized twice in the third, it remained scoreless. The Pens dominated in the last few minutes of regulation, but couldn’t take it all the way.

“I really thought the third was probably the best we’ve been in a while, of play in the offensive zone, of having shifts where we forced the to be out there long periods of time,” Bylsma told the media.

The Pens had a difficult overtime, struggling to get into the offensive zone. Fortunately, though, they found themselves on the power play and were finally able to do something with it. Letang seemed to have fashioned himself into a wall, not allowing the puck to leave Colorado’s zone once the Pens got it in. At 3:34, forward Tyler Kennedy tallied the game-winning goal, assisted by Goligoski and Letang.

“We needed a big goal from the power play,” Staal said afterwards. “We didn’t have our best throughout the game, but we came up big at the end when we really needed it – a lot of great plays to keep the puck alive, and it was a fortunate bounce and (Kennedy) buried it.”

If you look at this game report-card style, most improved areas of the Penguin’s performance definitely includes the penalty kill. After allowing the Rangers to score three power play goals on Sunday, the PK unit killed both Avs power plays. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also stopped 29 of 31 shots.

Also, key players have been stepping up in the absence of point-getters like Crosby, Malkin, and Kunitz. While the performance of the AHL call-ups currently in the lineup can be labeled as excellent, the guys who had been on the team all along needed to contribute more than they were. This is why it was good to see a goal coming from Staal, who many looked to as the next star in line after Crosby and Malkin, but only had five points in the 10 games prior to last night. Kennedy has been working noticeably hard, and he now has six points in eight games to show for it.

“I think the power play has given him an opportunity to become more of a shooter,” said Bylsma. “You see that at times from him when he scores his goals. He’s been able to do that on the power play and I think you see it carry over a little bit to the five-on-five play. He had four or five situations tonight coming out of the corner where he’s using that shot that he has, that we’ve seen him score with. That’s something we need to keep continuing on, regardless of whether he’s getting power play time or not. He’s been effective that way.”

“I feel a lot more comfortable out there,” Kennedy said. “I’m really settling in, so it’s nice.”

After a bit of a dry spell, offensive defenseman Letang has been a big contributor as well, now with five points in three games. Goligoski has a point in each of the last three.

Under still needs work are the power play and puck possession. The power play has been weak – only two goals on the man advantage in the last two games, despite 22 minutes of opportunity. The Pens also need to be able to hold onto the puck more tightly so they can improve their chances in the offensive zone rather than spending so much energy trying to get it out of their own.

Overall, the Pens played hard and were rewarded for it.

“We’re obviously not in the best shape right now, and we wanted a big two points tonight for our team,” Staal said. “(The Avalanche) is having trouble as well, and we knew it was going to be a tough battle for both teams. I’m glad we came out on top.”

With a confidence boost when it was badly needed, they are surely bound to improve in the face of adversity.

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