After opening a rare, back-to-back weekend homestand Saturday with a lackluster effort against the Montreal Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Penguins needed a bounce-back game Sunday.
“It’s a good thing that we have these back-to-back games,” said defenseman Zbynek Michalek. “It’s a chance for us to bounce right back and learn from our mistakes. We need a better effort.”
And they got it, rolling to a 5-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
“Rebounding from a game like that says something about the group in there, and we needed to,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “That was a big effort, coming back and getting that win after a poor performance.”
Not only did the team rebound as a whole against the Oilers, but a few players who had underwhelmed against the Canadiens found some redemption.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, pulled after allowing three goals on 12 shots in Saturday’s 3-0 loss, got the call again Sunday and took full advantage.
“On the way home [Saturday], coach called me and told me I’d be back in there,” Fleury said. “I was happy to not have to think about it too much last night.”
Sunday, Fleury stopped 28 of 29 Edmonton shots and managed to stay focused despite an early lack of work, as the Oilers came up with only two shots in the first 20 minutes.
“Marc has a pretty strong history of rebounding,” Bylsma said. “Yesterday was a situation where we left him prone a couple of times; it wasn’t entirely his own demise. But, getting him right back in there to play a strong game, we needed a rebound.”
The Penguins’ stingy first period was even more impressive considering that the frame included a stretch of nearly two minutes with the Oilers on a five-on-three advantage. The Penguins’ penalty kill not only killed it off, but held Edmonton without so much as a shot on goal – then, just seconds later, Pittsburgh came the other way and scored.
“That’s a long time to have to kill off, and three guys in particular – 27 [Craig Adams], 24 [Matt Cooke] and 4 [Michalek] – did an outstanding job,” Bylsma said. “We won a couple faceoffs, we blocked a few shots, we were able to get some clears. And they did an outstanding job of blocking shots, creating those loose-puck situations, getting them down, which was not easy, and Flower [Fleury] was tough in there.
“Huge kill, gave momentum to our team and, right after, we came out and got a forechecking goal from [Jordan] Staal, [Chris] Kunitz and [Tyler] Kennedy and really put a statement on the game.”
“The five-on-three actually put some momentum in our favor,” said Kunitz, the goal-scorer. “When the guys killed that off, it got the building going, got the guys playing a little better at the end of the period.”
Then there was Staal, the Selke Trophy finalist who looked like anything but an elite defensive forward Saturday as he was on the ice for two goals-against. To add injury to insult, at the end of the contest, Staal got a stick in the face from Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn that left some nasty gashes.
“It was a ‘when it rains, it pours’ kind of deal,” Staal said. “I didn’t have my best game and was already frustrated enough, and to get that was kind of salt in the wound.”
Sunday, however, Staal was among Pittsburgh’s best players on both ends of the ice, limiting the Oilers’ chances and helping the Penguins convert two of their own with a goal and an assist. That wasn’t a coincidence, said the big center, who had given plenty of thought to Saturday’s lackluster performance.
“All last night, and this morning as well,” Staal said. “Obviously, it wasn’t my best effort against Montreal. I wasn’t feeling all that great with the way I played, and I wanted to come out with a better effort tonight. I’m glad things worked out.”
“He was not very pleased with his game yesterday … and he really took a leadership role with the way he played today,” Bylsma said. “You don’t see very many bad games from Jordan Staal, and he wanted to come back with a strong one today, which he did. He’s a stalwart for us in a lot of ways but, today, he stepped up in a big way.”
And Kunitz, who wasn’t much of a factor with a minus-1 performance Saturday, came through with two of the Penguins’ goals Sunday to achieve his third career 20-goal season.
“We had a little better jump this game,” Kunitz said. “It was nice to bounce back, and an all-important two points.”
Those two points put Pittsburgh three behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead. Philadelphia has two games in hand, but all the Penguins can do is try to keep winning.
And that’s something they’re confident they can do on any given night, even in the continued absence of important pieces of their lineup like Sidney Crosby, Brooks Orpik and Evgeni Malkin.
“That’s the swagger we’ve been building a little bit – not a bad swagger, but a good one, knowing that we can win without these guys,” said forward Max Talbot. “They’re a huge part of our team, but we’ve been doing it quite a bit, playing without those guys and playing good without those guys. We know we can win, and that’s what we’re doing right now.
“Why would you change the approach you take? We have a system, we’re well-coached, everybody has a job to do and we’re doing it. We’re still doing the same plays, we have the same system, nothing has changed. And it’s been working.”