The Penguins might’ve been one of the big winners at the NHL trade deadline. But, in three games since bolstering their roster with center Derick Brassard, no winning was happening.
The goals were still coming during the three-game skid, which saw the Penguins lose 6-5 at Florida, 3-2 at home against New Jersey, and 8-4 at Boston in a contest that wasn’t even as close as the final score.
But the goals against begged the question of whether Pittsburgh had cause for concern on the other side of the puck. They shipped off defenseman Ian Cole in the Brassard trade and, while the move made sense with Cole a pending UFA, he had been playing his best hockey of late alongside Jamie Oleksiak.
Now Oleksiak was paired with beleaguered blueliner Matt Hunwick, who hasn’t looked entirely comfortable with the Penguins’ system since arriving from Toronto last summer. And to say neither was thriving was an understatement.
The pair was on the ice for three of Florida’s six goals, with Hunwick also on for a fourth. They were on for two of New Jersey’s three, though Hunwick also scored for the Penguins.
“It’s easy to point fingers,” head coach Mike Sullivan said, defending the pair after Tuesday’s loss to the Devils. “I think they’re a pair that we know can get the job done for us; they’re good players. Just because someone’s on the ice for a goal [against] doesn’t necessarily mean that’s their fault. There’s six guys on the ice, so I think that’s a real broad assumption to make, and that can be dangerous.”
Things didn’t get any better in the debacle in Boston, with the pair on for three goals against and Oleksiak for one more. And, even though there was plenty of blame to go around, Sullivan decided to change things up for Saturday’s contest with the New York Islanders.
Chad Ruhwedel, out since late December to injury and healthy scratches, subbed on in the third pair with Olli Maatta. Oleksiak moved up to the second pair with Maatta’s usual partner, Justin Schultz. Forward Carter Rowney, on for five goals against versus the Bruins, came out of the lineup, and AHL callup Dominik Simon slotted in on the third line alongside Brassard and Phil Kessel.
“I came to the rink ready to play, had a feeling and it came true,” Ruhwedel said.
The results were immediate.
The Penguins dominated possession from the start, generating 19 shots in each of the first two periods. Isles goalie Christopher Gibson, 25, was lights out in just his fifth NHL game until the 37th shot he faced. Patric Hornqvist tied the game at 1-1, Brassard tied it at 2-2, and Crosby put home the overtime game-winner – after a thrilling OT penalty kill – on Pittsburgh’s 50th shot of the game.
“We generated a lot of shots, a lot of chances, didn’t give up a ton,” Crosby said. “That was important, but the main thing was to get the two points and try to build off of that.”
Brassard’s goal, off a rebound from Kessel, was his first as a Penguin and a sign that he’s getting more comfortable in a team offense that couldn’t be more different than Ottawa’s.
Brassard's first goal as a Penguin. pic.twitter.com/ID7ML3fcYo
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) March 4, 2018
“I have to think more offense and still play on the right side of the puck,” Brassard said. “In my previous team I was playing more on the defensive side all the time and a little bit more patient in our game. Here, we have a lot of speed on our team and are trying to play a fast-paced game. That’s what I try to tell myself on the bench every time.”
Another good sign for the Penguins? Goalie Tristan Jarry, in for starter Matt Murray as he recovers from a concussion, rebounded nicely. Not just from his relief work for Casey DeSmith in Boston – DeSmith gave up three goals on five shots, Jarry five on 33 – but from a disastrous start against the Isles just 1:11 in.
This one's gonna hurt the ol' save percentage… Tristan Jarry trips over his own skates and allows Brandon Davidson to SNIPE HOME A BEAUTY on the backhand! 1-0 Islanders! pic.twitter.com/aPUAP3Y2ka
— NHL Daily 365 (@NHLDaily365) March 3, 2018
“You have to catch yourself and refocus right away,” Jarry said. “It was one of those fluke things where my skate just got caught in the ice and I wasn’t able to get back up quick enough. It was a little easier when I came back to the bench and saw 90 percent of the guys laughing. The guys helped me and picked me back up.”
“I was thrilled,” Sullivan said. “It’s a tough one. I don’t know what he did, quite honestly – I don’t know if he lost an edge or hit a rut, but it’s one of those unfortunate circumstances. As a young goalie, something like that happens that early in the game, and he understands this is an important game for us. This is a high-stakes environment, and there’s a fine line between winning and losing.
“I thought he really responded well, and I thought our players in front of him responded the right way. They gave him a tap on the pads, said, ‘Don’t worry about it; we’ll get it back,’ and that’s what they did.”
The new defensive pairings also did a better job of helping the Penguins make quick exits from the defensive zone and control territory.
“We just thought we needed to mix up the pairs a little bit,” Sullivan said. “Chad is a guy we know we’re going to need going forward. I’d been concerned for a while that I hadn’t gotten him into any games, and I thought it was an opportune time, just based on how our team was playing recently.
“I thought he had a real solid game. Chad’s been a valuable player for us; he plays that 6-7 defenseman role for us extremely well when he comes in the lineup. I think he understands what his role is, and he plays within himself. I thought he did a real good job tonight.”
With the three-game losing streak snapped, the Penguins can focus on making up ground in the playoff race, where they’re three points behind Washington (81) and one behind Philadelphia (79) for the Metro Division lead.
It’s a safe bet that the Penguins will ice the same lineup when they host the Calgary Flames on Monday.
“I liked our team game tonight,” Sullivan. “I thought we had the puck an awful lot. We generated a significant amount of scoring chances. It didn’t seem like the puck wanted to go in for us, but I liked our stick-to-it-iveness. There was no panic on the bench; we just kept trying to play the game the right way. There was a lot to like about our game.”