Penguins Learning to Play It Close

The Penguins’ resurgence – going 10-4-3 since Jan. 1 to climb back into playoff position – has largely been driven by offense. In that time, only three teams have found the net for more goals than Pittsburgh’s 54 – a significant turnaround from their 28th-ranked offense in the first part of the season.

If the Penguins do earn a postseason berth, however, can they also compete in the kinds of low-scoring, close games that often define the NHL playoffs? Games this week against the stifling New York Rangers and desperate Carolina Hurricanes gave Pittsburgh the chance to find out.

The Rangers have knocked the Penguins out of the past two playoffs and Wednesday, in their first meeting of the season, issued a stark reminder of why they’re exactly the kind of team Pittsburgh would love to avoid in the postseason.

With New York’s Kevin Hayes finding the net before the halfway point of the first period, the Rangers went into shutdown mode. They shut down captain Sidney Crosby, who didn’t register a shot in the first two frames and saw his career-high seven-game goal streak, and nine-game home goal streak, come to an end. They limited the quality of Pittsburgh’s 34 shots, blocked 25 more and got a typical Henrik Lundqvist performance in goal, while making the most of their own 22 shots and exploiting the Penguins’ mistakes.

And mistakes are easy to make when a team is locked into a 1-0 deficit late in a game and starting to get frustrated. That’s how the Rangers essentially put the contest away early in the third, when center Derek Stepan sprung former Penguin Dominic Moore on a 2-on-1 when defenseman Brian Dumoulin got too aggressive and tried to pinch on the play.

“You’re down a goal so your first instinct is to jump, and I should’ve just backed down,” Dumoulin said. “They’re a patient team and they wait for us to make mistakes, then they capitalize on their opportunities.”

“We expected this game to be a close game,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “What we’ve been preaching to our team is that, when we get in these games, we make sure we don’t become a high-risk team because we’re forcing things because we don’t score.”

That philosophy applies to all close games, from 1-0 battles to higher-scoring one-goal contests, Sullivan said.

“Moving forward, we’ve got to make sure we take what the game gives us and we try to dictate the terms out there,” he said. “We’re trying to play fast and, when the plays are there to be made, we want to make them. We just want to make sure we make the right decisions and manage the puck appropriately, so we don’t give them opportunities to counterattack and we’re vulnerable.

“I thought, in tonight’s game, they were opportunistic. I don’t want to overthink it. I think if we could’ve scored a goal, it would’ve given us a lot of juice on the bench.”

Against teams like the Rangers, though, the Penguins often aren’t getting those goals. New York beat Pittsburgh last spring in five games, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the Rangers won four 2-1 games while the Penguins’ lone win was a 4-3 final.

“We’ve got to find ways to get more contributions throughout our lineup,” Sullivan said. “When we’ve been winning here for the last little while, we’ve found that. Tonight I thought, for the most part, it was a pretty even hockey game. I thought we generated a fair amount of scoring chances. Our power play had some real high-quality chances; we don’t score. They score on a 2-on-1; we get a 2-on-1 and don’t score. It’s a fine line.”

That fine line might just be a matter of working harder.

“We had some good chances; they did, too,” Dumoulin said. “We put pucks on the net and [accomplished] our goal of shooting the puck and creating rebounds. We’ve got to go to the net a little bit harder and try to fight for some of those.”

Two nights later in Raleigh, the Penguins found themselves in another 1-0 game late – but, this time, on the right side of that score. Fighting for the win on this night was Phil Kessel, who cashed in for a goal on seven shots, attempted seven more, and used his speed to cover for defensive lapses in the 3-on-3 overtime after the Penguins allowed the Hurricanes to tie with just over five minutes remaining.

It wasn’t the prettiest of games for the Penguins. Carolina came out with energy in the first period, firing 13 shots at goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and carried much of the momentum in the third. Hurricanes netminder Cam Ward also elevated his game, as he so often does against the Penguins.

But this time, facing a Carolina team that started the night three points behind the Penguins for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot, Pittsburgh found a way to get the two points, with Kris Letang scoring the only goal of the shootout on a patient, pretty move and Fleury stopping all three attempts he faced.

“You’ve got to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “Hopefully you don’t make a habit of it, but these are tough games, close games. Both teams are pretty desperate. It’s good to be on the right side of it after a bit of a grind there.”

It’s good practice for the Penguins to work on grinding out those low-scoring wins now. It helps that Fleury – who struggled in his first couple of starts after the All-Star break – has returned to form, allowing just five goals in three games this week. It’s also a good sign that the Penguins are No. 6 overall in the NHL’s Shot Attempts Close statistic, which has proven a significant indicator of which teams make the playoffs.

If Kessel’s dominant performance against Carolina could kickstart a line aside from Crosby’s – who’s leading the league in scoring in the new year and has climbed to No. 6 overall – that would help, too, especially as Evgeni Malkin continues to recover from an unspecified injury.

“If we can get more than one line going here offensively, as far as goal scoring, we’re a better team,” Sullivan said. “We can be a team that has that balance.”

“You want to play the way you can, the way we should,” Fleury said. “I don’t think that was our best game [against Carolina], but we found a way and that’s what matters.”