It may not have been the prettiest and it may not have answered any questions about this Penguins team, but last night, the Penguins passed a huge test in taking down the league’s best Tampa Bay Lightning.
And, heading into last night’s affair, we got a glimpse of what may be come April: Tampa, as the #1 seed, taking on the #2 Wild Card Penguins. You could tell, too, that this game had all the makings of a playoff feel to it.
But when the dust settled and Party On Fifth Ave. should’ve been playing, the Pens found themselves on the right side of a 4-2 decision and leapfrogging up to 2nd place in the Metro, just 3 points off the Islanders pace (who have a game in hand).
With that, the Penguins close the book on January and head into February, where their mettle will be tested between traveling to Toronto, Florida, Tampa, Philly twice, and Columbus, while also having to play host to Carolina, Calgary, and San Jose on top of making it through the trade deadline.
If they make it through this hellscape of a month unscathed, look the fuck out.
Welcome to the show, Teddy Blueger!
Derick Brassard will miss tonight's matchup due to an upper-body injury (day-to-day). pic.twitter.com/UtaskrGGqw
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 31, 2019
The Teodors got his NHL debut, centering the 4th line as Cullen was elevated to the 3C role with Brassers out with some mystery ailment that is definitely not Trade Bait Flu. No changes to anything on the back end, despite JJ73 leaving the loss to the Devils in the third period. Murr vs. Vasilevskiy between the pipes.
Lines from warmups:
Hedman-Girardi McDonagh-Cernak Sergachev-Stralman
— Caley Chelios (@CaleyChelios) January 31, 2019
Right from the opening draw, no one would’ve faulted you for getting a feeling of dread as Tampa came out guns blazing, forcing the Pens to live in a cage in their own zone like they were trying to cross the border for asylum. But, against the flow of play, they took advantage of the first change they generated on the night, opening the floodgates and breaking their chains.
PIT – 3:25 – Sheahan; A: Wilson, Letang – 1-0
And it came on the first shift between the two fourth lines. Tampa looked poised to do something after Riikola’s backhand Murphy Dump only made it as far as the back side of the center circle. Immediately, it was moved forward to Paquette to chip in behind Riikola sliding across to take away the boards. This instance is exactly where the goal was created.
Watch Teddy Blueger as he jumps off the bench. No mental lapse, no bullshit. He immediately jumps into the play, sees Riikola pinching, and drops in behind to offer support. In doing so, he takes away Adam Erne’s path to Paquette’s chip and wins the race to the loose puck just by being in the right position. Then, watch as he slows up just enough for Erne to try to check him. This makes sure Erne is going to engage with him instead of chasing after Letang. As soon as Blueger feels Erne committing to him, he slips a pass over to Letang for the breakout. Letang does the rest here with an elite transition pass up to Sheahan to lay an area chip to Garrett Wilson streaming in. Wilson still has a lot to do to make sure he gets the puck away from and around Girardi to get his shot, rebound, and wraparound chance.
Again, don’t sleep on Blueger’s role in the goal in the offensive zone either. As Wilson’s shot hits Vasilevskiy, Blueger is bombing in. His center drive forces McDonut to try to take him away, but in the end, Blueger forces McDonagh into path of his own teammates, rendering them useless from pursuing Wilson. That opens up the area for Sheahan to bury the rebound.
PIT – 8:05 – Phil!; A: Rust, Malkin – 2-0
Over the next couple of minutes, the Pens had to hold onto their butts because the Bolts were coming. Murray stood tall while the Rust-Malkin-Phil! line played some decent defense to keep the Lightning to the outside. Following Hedman’s point shot that Murr kicked out to Gene, 71 got the transition going with a short little pass to Rust, who had his feet moving more so than Geno did. From there, 17 stormed up ice, only to be caught and turning the puck over in the process just inside the blue line. But as Tampa tried to switch it to the weak side, Letang read the shit out of it, jumped in and knocked the puck away for 71 to collect and slip a pass to Rust coming across the blue line. Phil! and Rust combined, Rust drove the net, and Phil! banged home the loose puck to double the lead and give Malkin his 600th career assist.
PIT – 8:21 – Crosby; A: Simon, Point – 3-0
Then, just 16 seconds later, it was 3 through Electric Boogaloo. No bullshit from these three as Crosby won the restart draw for Guentzel to dump in deep. Riikola makes a nice read on the rimmer to pinch down the wall and keep it deep here, which almost entirely sets up the goal.
Almost being the operative word because it was also Guentzel’s tenacious forechecking on Brayden Point that forced Point to give it right to Simon at the side of the cage after Cernak gave the Bolts forward next to no option. Good on Simon for getting body position on Cernak and sucking him in before feeding the beast on the back stick.
From there, the penalties started flowing. McDonut got hit with a high-sticking penalty on Hornqvist 9 minutes in, then 26 seconds into the Pens man-advantage, Paquette ran Letang deep in the Pens zone with a pretty predatory hit.
And that Paquette his is even worse at full speed pic.twitter.com/PL967c7ryq
— geoff bozo (@G_Off817) January 31, 2019
Bolts fans whomst definitely exist handled it well.
Bolts killed off the 5v3 and it kinda actually settled the game down in the sense that the Penguins didn’t get any more than 5 total shots on goal in the period, including 0 on the powerplay, compared to that of the 16 Tampa put on goal. In fact, in 14:09 of 5v5 time, the Pens registered exactly 6 shot attempts, scoring on half of them. Tampa levied 26, 22 of which went unblocked. All that being said, despite Tampa controlling the puck almost entirely, none of those 16 shots came from the high danger areas of the ice. This sport makes no fucking sense.
As the 2nd frame opened, the Pens had to go to the PK 1:56 into the period as Malkin went off for hooking. Pens with a heroic kill, including a little luck as Stamkos rung one off the iron. Tempers flared back up after Johnson and Gourde got into it on the 5v4 before Dumo and Killorn got matching roughing penalties to give us some 4v4 action.
"The good things Jack Johnson does won't show up on the stat sheet" pic.twitter.com/cRgcD6PMYl
— geoff bozo (@G_Off817) January 31, 2019
PIT – 6:02 – Letang; A: Phil!, Malkin – 4-0
Prob not two other teams you’d ever rather see play 4v4 hockey than these two and it was the Pens not disappointing this time around. Watch here as Phil! just takes the game by the balls here. Dude was just motoring trying to wind it up before combining with Malkin just inside their own zone to free Phil! up the left wing wall.
Here’s where you can see just how good Letang is at picking his spots. With Malkin acting as the defenseman breaking the puck out, Letang sees that he can stay up ice and take off with 81 as soon as the pass is completed. Malkin’s pass takes 2 Lightning players out of the play and Sergachev’s gap on Phil! was nothing short of abysmal, giving Kessel the chance to cut to the middle of the ice and turn the rush into a modified 2v1. When he beats Sergachev, it forces Hedman to pinch over to try to take away Phil! ripping one from the high slot, which in turn opens up the passing lane for 58 streaking in.
He’s not missing from there, fam.
"And the wind cries 'Norris.'"
Letang's goal ties him with Paul Coffey for most goals for a Penguins defenseman. Ever heard of him? pic.twitter.com/3kOYq6Tunp
— geoff bozo (@G_Off817) January 31, 2019
That goal in turn kinda sucked the life out of the Bolts, as you might expect. Pens went on to outshoot them in the period 10-6 and controlling the play at evens. In the 18 minutes of even strength play, the Pens controlled 60% of the shot attempts (18-12) and doubled up the Lightning 12-6 in unblocked attempts.
But when the 3rd period opened, the tempers started back up with Malkin and Stamkos engaging in some fisticuffs just 1:40 in.
Then we got a bunch of penalties 5 minutes after that because Paquette went full dicktroll and went after Blueger, getting called for cross-checking, which started a skirmish that ended with Blueger and Erne getting matching roughing minors, putting the Pens back on the powerplay to run down 2 more minutes, but not enough to preserve Murray’s shutout.
TBL – 15:50 – Miller; A: Killorn, McDonagh – 4-1
Even down 4-0 with about 4 minutes left, you cannot ever count out this Lightning team. They can put 7 by you and still have 2 minutes to spare and that fear presented itself here.
After a dump in that Dumoulin did well to win in the corner for Letang to airmail out to the neutral zone, Sheahan did a decent enough job to keep whacking at the bouncing puck and get it into the Bolts zone, but only as far as McDonut. Sheahan gets caught here going to the bench and you can see Cullen peel way away from where the puck is, looking as if he too was going for a change. By going towards the bench instead of towards the puck and with Letang and Dumo changing behind the play, Tampa had 4 guys on the strong side moving the puck up ice. The Penguins had 0.
Because of this, Cullen and Riikola are forced to sell out in attacking Killorn as he enters the zone. Maatta’s focus is also on Killorn and Cirelli here, giving JT Miller the freedom to loop in behind the 3 Pens defenders and burn a one timer by Murr from up high.
To further complicate things, Cullen found himself in the box for hooking with 2:19 left.
TBL – 17:56 – PPG – Stamkos; A: Kucherov, Hedman – 4-2
It took the Bolts and their league-best powerplay just 15 seconds to make short work of the opportunity and turn this into piss your pants time.
Again, it was another mental lapse that cost the Pens. Tampa wins the draw, they get set up, but so too does the Pens PK. No harm, no foul despite Tampa loading up on shots. But when a Kucherov shot ended up on the far wall for Point to collect and move it back to Hedman to reload, the wheels fell off for the Pens penalty kill.
Hedman actually fans on his pass to Kucherov here and with Rust playing the chaser role, he follows that soft pass and looks like he’s trying to pin Kucherov in on that side of the ice. Rust takes away Hedman as an option and with Stamkos surrounded in the slot and Palat tied up in front, Kucherov really has no other option.
However, Kucherov makes a subtle little fake with his stick here to make it seem like he’s going to dish it down low to Palat. Sheahan bit and shifted that way, which opened up just enough of a passing lane for Kucherov to hit Stamkos on the far side of the ice to load up a wrister that both Sheahan and Johnson were slow to get in the way of, beating Murr 6-hole.
Vasi pulled right after, but the Pens clenched their asses and survived to see it off. Spin ittttt.
After the first period, the game was a lot more even. Pens actually controlled 5v5 shot attempts at 30-28 in the 2nd and 3rd, while the scoring chance split was 12-12. Tampa took a 7-4 edge in high danger scoring chances in the final two periods, but it they were 7-7 for the game (all via naturalstattrick.com). Via Corsica, at all strengths, Tampa had a slight 2.34-2.28 edge in expected goals and a 1.94-1.52 edge at 5v5 for the game. None of us may survive a 7 game series between these two teams.
This sport is weird as hell, but if this Pens team can keep up consistently with the league’s best, then games against the Senators and Red Wings and Blackhawks and Kings can eat shit. Whatever.
The @penguins play up to their opponents. #NHLTonight pic.twitter.com/TQ2JHI5A8F
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) January 31, 2019
Probably no better player on the ice last night than Kris Letang. End of story.
Willing to bet Murr would’ve liked to A. get the shutout and B. have that second goal back, but facing one of the best shooters of this generation, he’s going to find a hole to get the puck through. Still, 33 saves on 35 shots (.943) is a solid bounce back after the team let him down against Jersey. The team was much better in front of him last night, limiting Tampa to just 5 high danger shots at 5v5, 7 mid-danger, and a cool 16 low danger shots. Tampa did get 4 rebound shots against, though, if we want to nitpick, but Murr was up to the task.
Tough game for the Pearson-Cullen-Hornqvist line. Together at 5v5, they generated just 4 shot attempts for and 11 against (26.67%), got exactly 0 shots on goal (7 against), generated 2 scoring chances (0 high danger) and 4 against (2 HD).
On the flip side, Guentzel-Crosby-Simon controlled shot attmepts 13-12, scoring chances 7-4, and high danger chances 4-3. Rust-Malkin-Kessel went 9-9, 4-3, and 2-1 respectively, while Sheahan-Blueger-Wilson went 4-2, 2-2, and 1-0 repectively. All 3 lines scored at 5v5, too, while on the ice for 0 goals against.
The Pens wrap up this 3 game homestand on Friday night as the league-worst Senators come to town before heading up to Toronto Saturday night for another big showdown. Do it.