When the Penguins lost to Philadelphia on national TV Wednesday, it was discouraging but hardly surprising to see their cross-state rival turn Pittsburgh’s 3-1 lead into a 5-3 win. The Flyers have made something of an art form of stunning the Penguins with comeback wins over the past several years, going 12-2-1, including the 2012 playoffs, since the Penguins moved into their new digs at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Teams from outside the commonwealth, however, have been doing the same thing to Pittsburgh with regularity this season. The Penguins’ first loss of the year saw the visiting Dallas Stars turn Pittsburgh’s 2-0, first-period lead into a 3-2 win, with two of the Stars’ goals coming in the game’s final three minutes. Thursday in Detroit, the Penguins again watched a 3-1 lead slip away, with two Red Wings goals in the final three minutes and a last-minute overtime loss.
Even the Penguins’ wins haven’t always been easy – for example, when they staked out a 3-0 lead over the Anaheim Ducks in the season opener, watched the Ducks score four unanswered goals, then had to battle back for a 6-4 win.
With those back-to-back, come-from-ahead losses against Philadelphia and Detroit weighing on them, the Penguins went to Nashville Saturday sorely in need of not only a win, but a 60-minute effort. Against a backdrop of the three players involved in the teams’ major trade this summer – James Neal, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling – facing their old clubs for the first time, Pittsburgh got both.
“You need to [be able to finish off teams],” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby after a 3-0 shutout that handed the Predators their first regulation loss of the season. “It would be nice if one [goal] was enough but, sometimes, mistakes happen, you get a bad bounce, so to give yourself that cushion and keep playing the right way is important.”
The Penguins hardly put on a defensive clinic in the third period – 13 of Nashville’s 25 shots came in a desperate final frame, including two from Neal, the former Penguins sniper, that rang off the goalposts. But they took advantage of their opportunities – including a power-play goal on Neal’s hooking penalty – and came a lot closer to playing the way head coach Mike Johnston is looking for.
“We did a good job of that, right up until we made it 3-0 and they started to come at us pretty hard; we were probably guilty of sitting back,” Crosby said. “But, other than that, I thought we played the right way. We didn’t sit back to play defensively; I think we played defense with our forecheck, getting sticks in lanes and forcing them to miss shots sometimes. I think, all around, that’s more our style of game.”
“It’s an important point because, as you mature as a team, I thought our team took a big step tonight,” Johnston said. “I really believe we played the right way in the third period. [That means] if you’re in trouble with the puck, you lay the puck in behind pressure. Coming back on the backcheck, you stop in your zone, you play your lanes.
“Everybody committed to our defensive game, and it didn’t really take away from our offensive game tonight. Against a stingy team that has a great goaltender [in Pekka Rinne], we were still able to score three.”
They also got an outstanding performance from their own starting netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury.
“”When Flower plays the way he [did], it gives us a lot of confidence,” Crosby said. “When we did make mistakes, he had to make some tough saves; they definitely weren’t routine by any stretch. He led the way back there.”
There were fewer of those mistakes Saturday, however, and the Penguins hope to continue moving in that direction as they grow more comfortable with Johnston’s system. One area that saw improvement in Nashville, for example, was taking away the middle of the ice in the opponent’s offensive zone.
“We’ve been focused for a while [on that]; some nights, in the last few games, I thought we’ve left it open. We’re getting better,” Johnston said. “It’s a matter of your responsibilities when you come back defensively; we’ve talked to our wingers about where they’re lined up. And Nashville’s a team, when they come in, they come in wide, they hit the slot with a lot of plays, and I thought we took them away tonight.”
Pittsburgh also continued to make progress in not making mistakes with the puck by forcing plays that aren’t there – something with which they’ve struggled at times while adapting to Johnston’s approach to being a puck-possession team.
“When you force offensively, then you get on the wrong side of the puck and you take chances,” Johnston said. “There’s no taking chances in this league because of how close the games are and how important just a one-goal lead is. I don’t think we forced anything tonight.
“I [also] thought, for Geno [Evgeni Malkin] and Sid, defensively, they played an outstanding game. And when you look at the score sheet at the end of the night, they got their points.”