If it’s possible to split a three-game road trip right down the middle, well, that’s what the Penguins had accomplished when they returned home to Pittsburgh late Saturday night.
After three days off, Pittsburgh looked flat in Wednesday’s 7-1 shellacking at Washington, not to mention undisciplined to the tune of 28 penalty minutes that allowed the Capitals to go 2-for-7 on the power play. The Penguins needed a response game Friday against the Islanders and they got it, escaping with a 3-2 overtime win and two points.
Saturday, the Penguins headed to Buffalo in hopes of bringing home two more, but ran into an even more desperate opponent. Facing a Sabres team on a six-game losing streak, Pittsburgh fired 47 shots at goalie Anders Nilsson but couldn’t get one through until a third-period power play, ultimately losing 2-1 in a shootout.
“It’s just one of those games where you leave feeling like you deserved better, and we’ve got to find a way to bury a few chances,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who buried the Penguins’ only goal to keep up his goal-a-game pace. “But we created a number of them, especially in the third. It wasn’t a lack of effort or doing the right thing.”
“Obviously when you generate 50 shots, you hope you’d score more than one goal,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought their guy was good; I thought Marc [Andre-Fleury] was good on our side. He made some timely saves for us, especially in the overtime.
“I thought our team played hard. I liked the start we had, I thought we had a lot of zone time in the second period, and I thought we did a real good job in the third of getting more pucks to the net and getting people there, some traffic and making it as hard as we possibly could on their goaltender.”
In other words, the Penguins played the right way. And, in their case, what’s often a hockey cliché is shorthand for following the blueprint that’s brought them success, including some shiny silver hardware last spring.
“You try to control the process, you try to do the right things, and some nights you score and some nights you don’t,” Sullivan said. “I thought our guys stuck with it. They played hard throughout the course of the game. Our power play gets a big goal for us to get us to the overtime. And we had plenty of opportunities to score; it just didn’t go in for us.”
For the Penguins’ head coach, getting pucks to the net is key. That’s why he was pleased with his club’s first and third periods – where they got 18 and 16 shots on goal, respectively – and not as pleased with the second, where they were credited with only nine shots despite having the better of the puck possession, including a two-plus minute stretch in the offensive zone.
“We’re obviously trying to keep the puck, we’re trying to establish zone time, but we’ve got to get the puck to the net more than we did, especially at that particular point in the game,” Sullivan said. “Our puck possession was terrific, but I thought we had opportunities to get pucks to the net with people there, and we might’ve been looking for a better play.”
If the Penguins continue to dominate possession like they did Friday and Saturday, though, they’re likely to find success more often than not. They’re in for a fun home-and-home series this week with the new-look New York Rangers, who have added youth, speed and offense to their game, though all of these took a hit Sunday as one of the bright spots of their early season, 23-year-old center Mika Zibanejad, suffered a broken fibula.
The Penguins are the better team at generating chances, leading the league with 32.9 shots per game played, while no team has made more of their chances than the Blueshirts, who are scoring an average of 4.11 goals a game on just 28.9 shots.
“All we can do is control the process, what’s in front of us,” Sullivan said. “We’re grabbing points here along the way. We’re winning some games. We would’ve liked to come out with two points tonight; it didn’t happen, but certainly I thought our team played the right way. I thought the commitment was there.
“We make one mistake in the first period and it ends up in the back of the net. Sometimes that happens; that’s hockey over the course of a season. We just have to stay the course, and I thought our players did that. We just kept playing. We’re going to take it from here and keep moving forward.”