Over the past two, injury-riddled seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had to learn plenty about overcoming adversity, with players regularly stepping up to fill the gap for their sidelined teammates. This year, they’ve found a new kind of resilience – the ability to come back in games.
With Friday’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Florida Panthers, the Penguins tied the Tampa Bay Lightning as the NHL’s most dangerous team when trailing after two periods, pulling out their eighth such come-from-behind win.
“Last year was the exact opposite; it seemed like we couldn’t come back in the third period,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I don’t know if there’s just a quiet confidence in the room, because we’ve done it already a couple times, that we believe we’re going to do it.
“[Forward Steve Sullivan] just said after the game, it’s the sign of a good team. Even when you don’t play your best, you find a way to squeeze them out at the end.”
The flip side, of course, is that the Penguins have put themselves into too many situations where they’ve had no choice but to find a way late in games.
“In our 49 wins last year, we were ahead in a lot of those games for most of the game. This year, we haven’t been ahead a lot, so we’ve had to come back if we’re going to win,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
“Our goal differential in the third period is a pretty large number. Part of that’s the way we’re playing and taking over games and really being able to dominate third periods but, in a lot of cases, we’ve had to come back from deficits. And we’ve had to push to do that.”
Pittsburgh has scored 87 goals in the third period this year, compared to 62 for its opponents – a 25-goal differential that makes the final frame the Penguins’ strongest by far this season. They’ve been 10 better than their opponents in the first period, two better in the second.
That will to win is all the more impressive when you consider that many of Pittsburgh’s opponents in its current, eight-game winning streak – including the Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning – have been fighting for their playoff lives.
“It’s easy to say we don’t play our best, but it seems like every night we face a team that’s right on the brink of being in or out of the playoffs,” Orpik said. “So we’re getting the other team’s best every night.”
They also continue to get the best from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s on pace for the finest season of his NHL career so far. Fleury consistently makes the key saves to keep his team in close games and, when 65 minutes isn’t enough to decide the contest, there are few better in the shootout, where Fleury has gone 9-2 this season, allowing just nine goals in 39 attempts.
“In our dressing room, we believe we can win after a 60-minute game,” said Sullivan, whose goal early in the third period pulled Pittsburgh into a 1-1 tie with Florida. “Tonight’s a good example. I don’t think we were anywhere near our best, but we stayed in it long enough to find a way to take it to a shootout, and strong goaltending has been key throughout this whole stretch.”
“I think, with the type of guys we have here, we always know that we can come back and make a run for it,” Fleury said. “I just try to keep it simple, make some saves and they get the goals.
“Maybe earlier in the season, we weren’t winning those games, and now we’re finding ways to stay in it and win those games. It’s good, because we keep climbing in the standings.”
With their second eight-game winning streak of the year, the Penguins have taken advantage of the New York Rangers’ three-game slump to pull within four points of first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, closing a gap that once seemed insurmountable at 12 points.
With 15 games left, many of them against high-caliber opponents, the Penguins will be looking for better starts. They’ll also be looking to grab four points in their two remaining head-to-head matchups against the Rangers, starting next Thursday in New York.
“We’re trying to get right on their tails, and we’ve got a couple more games against them,” said forward James Neal. “We want to be in that top spot.”