On the first episode of HBO’s “24/7” series following the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, there’s a moment where Dan Bylsma addresses his team before last Saturday’s game in Buffalo. The Penguins beat the Sabres, 5-2, to extend their winning streak to 12 games; the streak ultimately ended a few nights later in Philadelphia with a hard-fought, one-goal loss to the Flyers.
The head coach instructs his club to play “Pittsburgh Penguin ice hockey,” then defines it: “Dictate the game, physicality and where it’s played and how we want to play it, till the 65 or 60 minutes is up and we get out of here.”
The Penguins didn’t do a half bad job of dictating the game Wednesday against the New York Rangers. It was just that 60-minute part of the equation where they struggled – and a monumental defensive collapse, staged in just over six minutes of the third period, cost them the hockey game.
The Penguins dominated play in the first, outshooting the Rangers, 15-6, and finally got rewarded at the end of the frame when Evgeni Malkin danced in with a pretty move on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to make the score 1-0.
The second period was more evenly matched, with New York giving Pittsburgh only a 7-6 edge in shots, but neither club got on the board. And that’s how it remained until halfway through the third, when former Penguin Erik Christensen came streaking down the left boards on a power play and fired a bullet over the glove hand of goaltender Brent Johnson.
Just 15 seconds later, lots of traffic in front of the Pittsburgh net led to Alex Frolov putting home a backhander that Johnson never even saw coming. And, just like that, the Rangers had turned a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead into a 2-1 deficit.
“It never really felt like they had momentum. It just seemed like they got a few chances and capitalized on them,” said captain Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins thought they scored to tie the game, but the apparent goal by Pascal Dupuis was waved off for incidental contact with Lundqvist. Dupuis said he was pushed in by Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival, while Rozsival said it was the forward’s responsibility to stop his trajectory.
“I tried to drive the net to create some room behind me, and their defenseman bumped into me,” Dupuis said. “I tried to avoid the goalie; I don’t know if he tried to sell it a little bit.”
“The referee thought our guy, without any help, went into the crease and interfered with the goalie before the shot came,” Bylsma said. “That was the referee’s explanation.”
After the goal was denied, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to completely lose its focus. The Penguins inexplicably gave the Rangers all the time and space they wanted. They stopped controlling the puck, stopped dictating, stopped playing Pittsburgh Penguin hockey.
“I liked a lot of what we did for maybe 40 minutes,” Bylsma said. “Maybe halfway through the second, we got away from the execution with the puck and managing the puck, and it gave them an opportunity. It also prevented us from continuing to wear them down and play the way we need to play.”
By the time New York’s Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle added two more to make the final score 4-1, it was just icing on what seemed like an already-foregone conclusion.
“We let them hang around in the third,” Crosby said. “We could’ve done a better job, and we paid for it.”
It was a rough turn of events for Johnson, who looked sharp for most of the game – including just minutes before the first Rangers goal, when he turned aside first Boyle, then Marian Gaborik, on an impressive sequence. It was the first time the backup netminder had played since November 27, but he wasn’t willing to use rust as an excuse.
“It’s been a while but, seriously, there’s no excuses,” Johnson said. “You can’t give up four goals in the third period, any goalie. If I’ve got to sit, I’ve got to sit for a while; that’s my job. I’m the backup goalie and when they ask me to perform, I have to perform. I’m definitely going to get back to work and, when I get my next opportunity, give the guys a chance to win.”
Bylsma, however, wasn’t going to point a finger at his goaltender when there were plenty of skaters who left him out to dry.
“I thought Johnny was sharp, played really well, did a good job handling the puck and minimizing some of their forecheck and was good in the net,” Bylsma said. “I don’t like the opportunities they ended up getting, and those are an issue more with the guys in front of him.”
In just over 24 hours, Pittsburgh’s 12-game winning streak had become a two-game losing streak. And the Penguins, idle until Monday when the Phoenix Coyotes come to town, have four days to think about what went wrong.
“It’s definitely a long time to think about it,” Johnson said. “But it gives us an opportunity to improve our game, too, to refine it and be ready for the game on Monday.”