The past week has given the Pittsburgh Penguins every reason to feel confident when a game goes beyond 60 minutes – or, for that matter, 65.
But after setting an NHL record with their fourth consecutive shootout win Sunday – a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers – the Penguins would still rather make things a little easier on themselves by winning in regulation.
“I don’t like going to a shootout to get an extra point,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We don’t coach differently and say, ‘we’ll hold on and try to get to overtime’ or ‘we got one and hopefully we can get the extra one in the shootout.’ We needed two points tonight, we needed two points against Philly [last Thursday]. And we certainly wanted to get them before we went to the shootout, even though we’ve been good in that area.”
“It would definitely be nice to start winning some in regulation,” said forward Alex Kovalev. “Because, otherwise, the playoffs are going to be really long with overtime periods.”
With the exception of the first game in the streak – a 5-4 shootout win at Detroit – the Penguins have been forced to work overtime because they’ve had a tough time finding the net in regulation. They’ve gotten just one goal in 2-1 shootout wins at Philadelphia and against the Panthers, and couldn’t get any in Friday’s 1-0 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils.
Part of the problem is a sputtering power play. With their most offensively gifted players on the shelf in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are converting less than 16 percent of their chances, good for 23rd in the league. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, its top-ranked penalty kill is compensating for the power play’s struggles, keeping opponents off the board more than 86 percent of the time.
“If there’s one area [of] concern, it would be the power play; it hasn’t been a real factor for us. It did get a goal against Philly, but it has not been able to be a threat or a weapon,” Bylsma said. “We’ve won a lot of hockey games, but sometimes we have to do it 1-0, or [with] zero goals-for to get the win against New Jersey.
“I’m not sure it’s a huge concern, [but] I don’t think it’s a strength of our team right now. The power play’s an area that can be a huge factor for you in the playoffs, and it’s something we have to get better at.”
What the Penguins have been pretty good at is their ability to come through in the shootout. Trade deadline pickup Kovalev, in his second stint with the team, has scored only one regulation goal in 14 games, but is 3-for-5 in the shootout. Two of those were game-deciding goals, including Sunday against Florida.
“I’m doing what I see,” Kovalev said. “Going second, I have the chance to see Tanger [Kris Letang] do it first and see how the goalie reacts. If he stays deep, I usually shoot. If he comes out and forces me to make a move, I make a move.”
“He’s infamous for his skill ability, his shootout ability and his hands ability,” Bylsma said. “I think we’ve been in five or six shootouts since he’s been here, and what he does is nothing short of spectacular. It’s head-scratching almost every time on the bench, and in practice he shows us even more moves that are a little bit off-the-wall. He’s outstanding there and he’s been a factor for us, gotten the big goals for us.”
Another trade deadline addition, James Neal, has likewise struggled in regulation, with one goal in 15 games, but has gone 3-for-4 in the shootout, deciding two of the four consecutive wins.
“Any time the pressure’s on, you like to thrive, and it’s a fun way to end the game,” Neal said. “As long as I can get the two points for the team, I’m excited. And the way Flower plays in the shootouts, he gives us the chance to win the game, with the way he stops every man coming down.”
That would be goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s been nothing less than lights out. After backup Brent Johnson started the shootout streak with last Monday’s 5-4 win at Detroit, stopping all three shooters he faced, Fleury was perfect against Philadelphia, New Jersey and Florida. He also strung together a shutout streak of 150:14 through those three games, setting a new franchise record.
Sunday’s win over Florida came after Fleury was named this season’s MVP in the Penguins’ annual awards ceremony, the first time he’s earned that honor.
“He’s been the backbone of our team,” Bylsma said. “He’s always been the guy who’s had the dramatic big saves and been there for his team, but I’m not sure he’s ever played this consistently for this long of a period of time. And, given our injury situation and the year that we’ve had, he’s been the guy who’s given our team confidence to play strong defensively, [on the] penalty kill. A lot of our wins have been because of not only his play, but the confidence he’s given our team to play that way.
“I think he’s our MVP, and I think he deserves to be mentioned for league MVP with his play this year.”
Although the Penguins are happy to take the two points regardless of how they come, their next matchup – Tuesday against Philadelphia – might be a good time to get back to winning in regulation, as every point is crucial in their quest to catch the conference-leading Flyers. Pittsburgh can match Philadelphia’s 100 points with a win.
“Today wasn’t our best game, but we pick up two points,” Kovalev said. “We’re going to make some adjustments, learn from today’s game, and it’s not going to be the same game we’re going to play against Philadelphia. It’s going to be pretty much a battle for the conference.”
“Obviously we want to be on top, and we’ve got to go through Philly to do that,” Neal said. “We’re right there, and it’s a big game Tuesday. We’ll get rested and be ready to go.”