For the 13th time this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were down heading into the third period Saturday.
For the seventh time this season, it didn’t matter.
The Penguins once again came from behind, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-3. With a 6-6-1 record when trailing after two, they’re the NHL’s best when facing that situation.
“We have lots of confidence,” said Evgeni Malkin, whose important power-play goal late in the second period helped spark the Penguins’ comeback hopes. “We know we can score two, three goals if we’re losing after second. We have a good feeling. We just come back to the ice and play our hockey. It’s not easy, but more important to play right. We always score.”
They’re scoring in bunches. The Penguins have found the net 28 times during a five-game win streak dating back to Dec. 1, an average of 5.6 goals per game. They’re led by their captain, Sidney Crosby, who’s leading the Rocket Richard race with 20 goals in just 22 games played.
On the season, Pittsburgh is third in the NHL with 95 goals for, and first with an average of 34.6 shots per game. But they also rank high in the less desirable categories of goals against (seventh) and shots against (fifth), meaning they’re often getting into what could charitably be called track meets.
Take their 8-5 win against the Ottawa Senators last week, for example – another come-from-behind effort where the Penguins put up 46 shots, allowed 34, and traded chance for chance and goal for goal in a game where all four goalies saw action.
“I think it’s something we’re aware of,” said forward Matt Cullen. “It’s not like it’s flying under the radar that we’re giving up more opportunities than we’d like. If we’re going to win consistently we need to tighten things up. It’s something we talk a lot about, and we just haven’t gotten to the point yet that we’re happy with that.
“At the same time, we’ve been able to win by putting pucks in the net. But we all know what it takes to win as far as how you need to play defensively, and we haven’t been up to that level consistently enough yet.”
Their head coach would agree.
“We certainly want to play a speed game. That’s when we’re at our best,” Mike Sullivan said. “I think we try to distinguish between a speed game and a track meet. We want to use our speed to our advantage, but not feed their transition in allowing a track meet where you’re trading chance for chance. When we get away from our game a little bit, we have a tendency to get into that.”
To avoid falling into that trap, the Penguins’ coaching staff tries to keep the players aware when they see it happening. And they’re preaching better decision-making with the puck.
“When you look at the makeup of our team, we’re a team that wants to play with the puck,” Sullivan said. “And there are times when we’re encouraging these guys to make plays. But when we recognize the danger zones and when the plays aren’t there to be made, that’s when we’ve got to force teams to play 200 feet. That’s when we become a more difficult team to play against.”
Nowhere is there more room for improvement than on the penalty kill, where the No. 28 Penguins have earned their spot near the league basement with just a 76 percent success rate.
“We look at it a lot and talk about it a lot,” Cullen said. “I don’t have a good answer for you; it’s just something we have to continue to work on. We know we can be better because we have been.”
Sullivan has thoughts on what the answer might be.
“I do think the group as a whole lacks a little confidence right now,” he said. “We’ve got virtually the same personnel we’ve used for quite some time now, with a very similar scheme. So they’re familiar with the scheme; they’re familiar with the concepts. They’re very good penalty killers and, for whatever reason, it’s been a struggle this year.
“Sometimes you start squeezing your stick, you try a little bit too hard, and you can almost exacerbate the issues. We just have to simplify the process. We’ll try to make some tweaks but, for me, the most important thing is that we have to instill some confidence in these guys.”
When it comes to the offense, however, no confidence boost is necessary. Even if that’s not always a good thing.
“We don’t [try to play from behind], believe it or not,” said goaltender Matt Murray. “I think we just try to stick to our game plan, no matter what the score is. Whether we’re up or down, we know we have the ability to score goals.
“We just need to realize that we don’t have to do it playing with a lot of risk. You can produce offensively by playing good defensively. And we can beat guys out of our end; we don’t have to try to jump by guys and make turnovers.”
The coaching staff is on board with that philosophy. But they also can’t help but admire the quality that might best define the 2016-17 Penguins thus far – resilience.
“This group has certainly provided enough evidence for themselves that they’re capable of climbing back in games,” Sullivan said. “And what I love about our team, our players, is the resilience. Nobody gets discouraged; we just keep playing the game. We make mistakes, but we don’t let it affect our play moving forward.
“I think that’s a really important characteristic that good teams have to develop, because things don’t go your way all the time out there. And it’s how you respond to those circumstances that I think dictates your ability to have success. We’ve been through a fair amount of that in my tenure here, and we have the firepower, the talent level, the capability to win games. There’s a belief that, regardless of what the score is, we can win.”