For the first period Sunday, it looked like the Penguins were going to be beaten by the Bruins on their home ice as they had been twice in Boston this season.
Pittsburgh looked woefully unprepared to start the 12:30 p.m. matinee. It was bad enough that Boston led 14-6 in first-period shots, but their 31-13 shot advantage was even more dominant. They carried the puck about 66% of the time to Pittsburgh’s 34%, unsurprising when the Bruins also dominated faceoffs, where puck possession starts, 72% to 28%.
In a somewhat surprising decision, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan went with Matt Murray in net – 4-0 in his four starts since the Christmas break, with a .926 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average – for a second consecutive start. Tristan Jarry had become the de facto starter of late, a trend that continued since the break with him getting eight starts (5-2-1, .909 Sv%, 2.72 GAA) to Murray’s four, despite his slightly lesser statistics.
After Friday’s 2-1 OT win in Detroit, giving Murray the nod Sunday against one of the NHL’s best teams seemed like a first step in the Penguins giving him the chance to earn his starting job back. With Bruins goals just 11 seconds and 2:02 into this contest, though, Murray didn’t look sharp, and neither did his defense. Things took a turn for the worse when a third Boston goal, credited to David Pastrnak, was directed in by Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson.
That's goal No. 37 on the year for David Pastrnak (@pastrnak96).
Things got so ugly in the first that the Penguins fanbase jeered their two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender on multiple occasions.
“It’s just an ‘on to the next one’ mentality; that’s all it is,” said Murray on putting the rough start behind him. On hearing it from the fans, he offered a diplomatic, “No comment.”
Moving on from rough starts is becoming a key part of the identity of this year’s Penguins. Only one team, the Washington Capitals, has won more games (13) than the Penguins’ 12 when trailing first.
Pittsburgh has made a regular thing of coming back from multi-goal deficits, too. So, when Dominik Simon buried this beauty of a pass from linemate Sidney Crosby, himself a recent comeback kid from core muscle surgery, late in the first to cut the Bruins’ lead to 3-1, you got the sense the Penguins could be coming on.
“It’s a place we’ve been before, unfortunately, but we’ve climbed out of holes before,” said forward Bryan Rust. “I think everybody knew what it took. We just had to elevate our game a little bit. Play a little bit harder, a little bit smarter.”
When they went to the locker room, Sullivan didn’t have to say much. The players have bought in this season to Sullivan’s mantras of being hard to play against and playing for each other, and they knew none of that had been happening so far.
“Hopefully he knew that we were not happy with our period,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “We all knew as a team that we were not playing the right way and we came out flat. We just had to regroup. We’re just hoping we can finish the period strong, grab the momentum, go into the second and start on a clean slate. Good teams don’t get discouraged; they stay the course. That’s what we did.”
The Penguins carried the late first-period momentum into the second, with Crosby making a between-the-legs, no-look pass to Teddy Blueger to pull within one.
The Bruins pushed back hard for the rest of the period, imposing an intense, physical style of play, carrying the puck 79% of the time, outshooting the Penguins 14-4 and getting 75% of the scoring chances. But Murray was up to the challenge.
“I give Matt a ton of credit; I thought he made some huge saves in the third period,” Sullivan said. “We don’t win the game if he doesn’t make those saves.”
With the game tied and the momentum going Pittsburgh’s way, the only question seemed to be which Penguin would get the game-winning goal. Evgeni Malkin went in hard on the forecheck, got the puck out to red-hot linemate Rust, and the Penguins took a 4-3 lead that held up.
The win was one of the Penguins’ most impressive of the season, pulling them within a point of Boston for second place in the East, and a microcosm of the resilience that’s become their calling card.
“[Boston is] a really good hockey team,” Sullivan said. “There’s a reason they’re where they are in the standings. They’re balanced; they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. They have a dynamic first line, a dynamic power play, they’re good in the faceoff circle. I was pleased with our guys; I thought the response after not a great start was really good. It was a character win.”
It was a character win for Murray, too.
“He was really solid,” Crosby said. “Unfortunately, he heard it a bit from the crowd there early on in the game, but he stuck with it. That’s not easy for a goalie when you’re at home and you hear it from your own fans. I’m happy for him, and I’m glad we were able to get back into it and give them something to cheer about.”
The Penguins travel to Philadelphia Tuesday, then get a long break with their bye week and the NHL All-Star Game. It’s a good time for a break as their season-long injury nightmare kept rolling Sunday, with forwards Simon and Dominik Kahun both leaving the game with injuries. They’re being evaluated for lower- and upper-body injuries, respectively.