There were times back in October when many in the Penguins room might have been wondering if they were ever going to get on track, but those thoughts are nothing but ancient history now. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that there are some in their ranks that are wondering if they are ever going to lose again. Though that is just wishful thinking, as they are all but guaranteed to lose again at some point, they are looking unbeatable during their current stretch.
Tonight’s victim, the New Jersey Devils, had the makings of being a trap game for the Penguins. Sure they are decimated by injuries and are in the middle of one of their worst seasons in twenty years, but they always seem to find a way to play well against the Penguins. The trap theory looked even more realistic when it was announced that Marty Brodeur was going to miss a couple more days and that the Penguins would be facing Johan Hedberg.
Thoughts of the streak grinding to a halt seemed even more realistic when the Penguins surrendered a power play goal to the Devils Brian Rolston at the 14:20 mark of the opening period. The “Moose” had made multiple saves and was giving his team a chance and you started to wonder if the Birds would ever be able to beat him. It was starting to look a lot like a typical game plan by the Devils…
“Yeah, when we play them its always a battle just to get points, you know,” said Penguins goalie Marc Andre Fleury who made 27 saves on the night. “They play so patient and defensive, but then they also have guys who can score goals and be dangerous in the offensive in the offensive zone. We’ve got to respect them.”
The Penguins did respect them and settled into their own successful game plan — complete attention to team defense, taking advantage of opponents mistakes, getting great goaltending and riding the hot streak of their captain, Sidney Crosby.
Crosby was again every bit the best player in the league tonight as he created his team’s first goal with a brilliant play through the neutral zone, kicked the puck to himself and slid a pass over into the wheelhouse of Chris Kunitz for a one timer.
“Duper made a good pass over to Sid, it hit him in the skates but Sid made an unbelievable play in stride to pick it up and put it to his stick,” said Crosby’s linemate Chris Kunitz. “He is on such a tear right now that a lot of guys overplay him and leave a lot of ice out there for a lot of us. It was a good play by him and a nice crisp pass… I just shot it on net and scored the goal.”
Once they tied the game up, they seemed to settle into a zone. They were putting shot after shot on Johan Hedberg, getting scoring chances all over the ice and finally pulled ahead at 12:49 of the second period. The Devils had a couple of chances to get the puck out of their zone the Birds did a great job of keeping the puck in the zone. Chris Kunitz kept the puck and got it to Alex Goligoski, who fired it to the net. The puck deflected off of Hedberg and right to Crosby who was wide open at the side of the goal. The Penguins captain one timed it into the goal for his 24th goal of the season.
From that point on you just got the feeling that this one was going to be in the books for the Penguins, they were getting the better of the breaks on special teams and locked it down. Fleury made the saves that he had too and Crosby came with inches of scoring of several occasions as the game wound down.
If there is one thing that we can pick on in the Penguins game at this point, it is their inability to score on an empty goal. Though that is largely a flaw that I created in hopes of reporting something to you. If you go back and look at it, they Birds have been unable to convert an empty netter on more occasions than you would believe.
They might not be able to knock in those empty netters frequently enough, but who needs them? Especially when you see the team playing so well with a one-goal lead these days. Something that they were unable to do with any frequency over the last season.
“There are a lot less odd man rushes than there were early in the season and that makes my job a lot easier,” was one of the reasons Marc Andre Fleury gave when asked about his team’s success securing one goal leads.
Chris Kunitz gave a bit more insight when breaking down why the team is so much better at holding these late one goal leads.
“I think early on we knew that we weren’t good enough defensively and its something that we tried to change in our game,” said Kunitz. “To help out our goalies and to block shots and to be better positionally.
“I think that is something that we have all been constantly aware of… just playing tighter and being in shot lanes and things like that. I also think its part pride… when you are up by a goal and be able to hold the lead. It feels a lot better when you don’t have to go to overtime or get a shoot out win, it is just a feeling of success.”
Overall, you couldn’t have asked for a better performance against a heated division rival, albeit one that is having a horror show of a season.
The Birds will be back in action here Wednesday night when they face-off against the Maple Leafs.
* * * * *
Crosby thoughts on the evening:
“I was just in the right spot. I just tried to get off the side of the net there and hope that something bounced over… Kuny does such a great job in front and a lot of times D aren’t able to get their sticks loose to clear rebounds and stuff like that. He tied up his man there and the rebound was able to come over.”
On the Kunitz goal:
“I just saw him kind of delay a bit. He didn’t slow down a ton, but enough to create some separation between him and the defenseman. I just tried to put it into space there for him and he ripped it…it was a great shot.”
On how the Devils play the Penguins:
“Yeah, they play us well… tonight it seemed like a lot of neutral zone and there weren’t a lot of chances. I don’t think that we want to just accept that that is how it is going to be…we want to force them to make mistakes and play our game as well.”
On the Guerin ceremony:
“It was great, to see all of the guys… the emotions were really high. It was really nicely done and we are really glad that Billy and his family could do that here.”
Dan Bylsma’s thoughts on tonight:
On playing better hockey against the Devils:
Clearly not having won a game against them last year was something we looked into and tried to come up with reasons why. The games I don’t think have changed this year, they are still tight. There is still not a lot of room in the middle of the ice.. One thing that I think we are doing a good job of is keeping our focus and mentality, but that’s the way the games going to be. Tonight we get down, last year when we would have gotten down to the Devils was something that we didn’t deal with very well, but we kept our focus and kept going. When we get to the third period it was a still tight, and there weren’t a lot of chances either way but I think the guys did a good job being comfortable playing that way. Being comfortable, not have a lot of room and still playing our game… defending as well, which we did a good job of.
On the play of Paul Martin:
Paul’s game is not high-energy game. You shouldn’t expect him to go out there crashing and banging, but the subtlety of which he plays and goes back for pucks and the plays he makes and the passes and look offs and the power play, and neutral zone transition is a big part of his game and lot of that goes unnoticed.
John MacLean’s thoughts on this evening:
On if this was one that his team should have had:
“We had some chances to kill off some penalties; the goalie played well. We even got a goal on the power play. We’re just not generating: we need more goals.”
The play of Hedberg:
“Hedberg played well tonight. He’s played well when called upon. He’s a battler. he did a good job. the goals you can’t really fault him on. he kept us in the game and their guy did the same down there.”
On if there is a point in the season in which the playoffs are in jeopardy.
“No, you can’t think like that now. We have to think about getting wins. we know where we are. You have to get one, and then two, and then go from there. Right now I don’t think that’s something we need to talk about.”
Thoughts on Sidney Crosby:
“He’s a good player. He seems to go to the right spots, and makes good plays…