If I had said months ago that an April game against a non-playoff team would be one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ most emotional victories of the 2010-11 regular season, you probably would’ve laughed.
Then February 11 happened.
That night at Nassau Coliseum, the New York Islanders not only beat the Pens 9-3 but also launched an all-out physical attack, and tension mounted beyond reason as total penalty minutes climbed to over 300. After the game, a metal gate was extended between locker rooms to keep the angry players apart. That night, the Isles were upset and they wore it on their sleeves.
Last night, it was the Penguins’ turn to come out on top, but they were not going to do it with fisticuffs. If they were angry about the last game, they did not let it show, and instead were focused on the beating they took on the scoreboard.
“When I look at last game, I see giving up 20 scoring chances and only getting nine,” Head Coach Dan Bylsma told the press. “I see giving up eight power-play chances against. There’s a lot to that game that got overshadowed with the extracurricular activities. We played very poorly. We weren’t good in very many areas of that game, and that got overshadowed. So when I look back at that game, that’s what I see about that game and those are the things that concern me going into this game.”
A victory would also mean clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and a chance to take the Atlantic Division lead over the Philadelphia Flyers.
The 4-3 shootout win got them just that. Goals from forwards Mike Rupp and Mark Letestu and defenseman Zbynek Michalek contributed to a 3-3 tie in regulation. Forward Chris Kunitz sealed the deal by being the only player to score during the shootout.
Special teams were an important factor. Michalek’s goal game on the power play, and the Islanders were only allowed one goal on seven man advantages, including a four-minute major to defenseman Brooks Orpik.
“I think special teams make a difference, especially late in the season and in the playoffs. For us to be able to kill penalties and score a big power-play goal, it was huge and gave our team a chance to win,” Michalek told the media.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp. At times when the Isles were placing peak pressure on the Pens, he did not allow the game to escape his team. He was also perfect in the shootout after trying on another hat – morale booster. After the team failed to take the win in regulation and overtime, they were hanging their heads.
“You could feel it on the bench, it was a little down,” Rupp told the press. “And ‘Flower’ right before the shootout comes by and just starts yelling something and got the boys going. He stood on his head in the shootout, so it was good to pump us up a little bit before the shootout.”
Rupp himself stood out, with an assist in addition to his goal. He was a powerful presence on the ice throughout the game.
“(Rupp) was physical, he was good in the offensive zone but he also drove the net, was a force there,” Bylsma said. “He’s a guy who can add skill and touch and ability with size and a physical game and he showed that tonight.”
There were two fights. Forward Eric Godard took on Trevor Gillies, who notoriously taunted Penguin Eric Tangradi after giving him a concussion. To set the tone of the game, however, the referees gave each player 10-minute misconducts.
“I thought the refs did a pretty good job of letting everyone know how the game was going to be called,” said Bylsma.
Pens forward Arron Asham also battled Islander enforcer Zenon Konopka, but each player in that instance only took five-minute punishments in addition to a two-minute instigator penalty for Konopka.
So why was this win so emotionally powerful? Well, aside from the home-ice clinch, it was the atmosphere in the stands. Penguins’ fans came out in droves, including a group who arranged a caravan-style trip from Pittsburgh. Fans of both teams were loud and passionate, and when the game came to a close, the Pens’ loyal devotees were jumping with joy and high-fiving all around.
The Pens themselves are professionals. They cannot allow their emotions to get in the way of playing hockey. It is the job of the fans, through their unwavering support, to be the backbone of a hockey team. Last night, the Pens and their fans were victorious.