The CONSOL Energy Center crowd was getting louder with every blocked shot, every save, and every big clear in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third-period, four-minute penalty kill Tuesday night.
By the time forward Matt Cooke stepped out of the box and onto the ice, the fans – all 18,653 of them, it seemed – let out a collective roar that just might have beat the decibel level of any playoff crowd the Penguins’ three-year-old home has heard so far.
“[The Capitals have] a very dangerous power play, and we had 15 guys step up on that penalty kill,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Forwards and D doing a great job, blocking shots. Flower [Marc-Andre Fleury] was tremendous in that sequence. The fans were tremendous in that sequence. They were as loud as they’ve been.”
And when defenseman Matt Niskanen, captain Sidney Crosby and Cooke combined to pick off a pass and catch the Capitals in a three-on-two going the other way, Washington netminder Braden Holtby didn’t have much of a chance.
“You felt the momentum at the end of that kill as the puck was going down the ice,” Bylsma said. “You felt like, somehow, that was going to end in a goal.”
It did, with Niskanen wristing the puck past Holtby to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead that held up as the final score.
“[The fans] were more excited for the PK than my goal, I think,” Niskanan said. “That’s OK.”
The Penguins’ 10-game winning streak has given their fans plenty to be excited about. And Pittsburgh has committed itself to a team-defense mentality that has driven the second half of that streak, allowing only five goals-against in the past five games.
“We’re finding ways to win,” Niskanen said. “It’s not going to be perfect every night, [but] you can always play good defense. And that’s one thing everyone’s been committed to and we’re getting better at. We’re always going to give ourselves a chance if we’re committed to that.”
Shutting down opponents’ chances on the man-advantage has been a big part of the Penguins’ recent success.
“There’s going to come a point in every game, if you’re playing against a good power play, that they’re going to get a chance. It’s almost inevitable, and that’s what Flower’s done for us,” Niskanen said. “But I think our penalty kill’s coming. We’re doing a better job of pressuring at the right times, the guys are supporting each other, we’re in the right spots, getting better clears. It’s definitely a focus.”
Pittsburgh is also committing to the discipline to allow fewer of them.
“Number of penalties is always a key factor,” Bylsma said. “Putting their best players on the ice in those positions, over and over again, is problematic. We’ve done a really good job of being disciplined and limiting other teams’ power play opportunities, partially because of how we’ve played with the puck and where we’ve played.
“But [also], when you know you’re going over the board for one kill – the aggressive stance, winning the faceoffs in those first eight seconds of the penalty kill – we’ve been much more aggressive and on our toes and had that confidence. And you can really maintain that when you’re only killing a few. When you’re killing five, you feel like you’re playing a little gamble game.”
The Penguins have found a way to continue winning despite multi-game absences from key components Evgeni Malkin, the league’s reigning scoring champion and MVP, and Kris Letang, who leads NHL defensemen with 28 points. And they’re doing it with different players stepping up every game – like third-line center Brandon Sutter, who scored two in a 3-2 win over Boston, fourth-line grinder Joe Vitale, who got the game-winner in a 2-1 win over the Bruins, and defensemen netting both goals in the 2-1 win over Washington.
“I think our team has really done a good job of going out and playing, regardless of the situation, regardless of the score,” Bylsma said. “We haven’t given up a lot and guys have stepped up. So you see the fourth line get us a game-winning goal. [Against the Capitals] we get a huge power-play goal from Paul Martin, with a newfound slapshot that he buries top-shelf, and Matt Niskanen jumps up to get us a goal. It has been, in some cases, that we’ve flipped the pages on some of the stories.”
And if those defensive-minded contests don’t seem like as much fun as the 7-6 and 5-4 barnburners the Penguins were getting into at the start of the streak, defenseman Brooks Orpik said, they’re a much a better way to head into the stretch run.
“I know the defensemen and goalies are a lot more happy with the way we’re playing now – maybe with the exception of [Letang]; I think he likes the high-scoring ones,” Orpik said. “It’s definitely entertaining for fans, but I think we learned the hard way last year that, going into the playoffs, when you play that way it’s kind of a 50-50 game. You might win, you might lose and, even when you win those games, I don’t think you feel very good about yourself. I think the way we’re playing right now is a lot more conducive to winning.”
Fellow blueliner Niskanen doesn’t have any complaints, either.
“Hockey’s pretty darn fun right now,” he said.