By Matt Popchock
The Penguins snapped their three-game skid with a decisive victory in Montreal Wednesday night.
And all I can say is, it’s about time.
It’s about time the Penguins put together something resembling a 60-minute game on the road, where, despite playing well for the lion’s share of this season, they had slumped recently, dropping three straight and four of five.
It’s about time the Penguins exorcised the inner demons that were the Montreal Canadiens, who had handed the Penguins four equally frustrating losses in a row dating back to that Eastern Conference Semifinal fail in May and might have been inside the Pens’ collective head a bit.
It’s about time the Penguins’ power play had a breakout game, something it has sorely been lacking for significant portions of the season, and to do it against an All-Star goaltender who had mastered them is that much more of a confidence boost.
It’s about time we got to see Jordan Staal celebrate something besides simply being able to skate, and for that matter, against the team and player that injured his foot eight months ago.
By that same token, it’s about time the Penguins were not the team playing undisciplined and getting into penalty trouble over the course of a game.
Most importantly, it’s about time the Penguins proved they can win without Sidney Crosby. They didn’t need to prove it to me. I’ve seen this team win plenty of times not needing their franchise player to be their Michael Jordan. But they needed to prove it to the rest of the hockey world, which doesn’t seem to expect much of the Pens with Sid in a suit and tie instead of his terrifying No. 87.
We all know that any self-respecting Nova Scotia boy who also respects the history of the game gets up for playing the Habs in Montreal, and it’s a damn shame Sid won’t get a chance to play there unless another postseason meeting comes to fruition. Nevertheless, it was better for the Pens in the here and now to win that game without him, because, until their five-goal outburst Wednesday, his absence had been exploited.
When the Pens’ power play broke the dam that was Carey Price, it allowed his Francophone counterpart–and the one who beat him in the All-Star balloting–Marc-Andre Fleury to celebrate. It was a celebration truly deserved.
The pre- and post-holiday struggles of the Penguins have been well documented, but in spite of those bumps in the road, Flower’s play has remained steadfast. He, like each of his teammates, has had his moments, but by and large he continues to author one of the finest turnarounds of any NHL player this season, and he has kept the Pens in most every game, even Monday’s Boston “massacre.” He made several impressive spots and put his team in position to win a tight one that, arguably, it should have.
When Kris Letang blasted a shot into half the population of Laval that found Chris Kunitz’s stick but eluded Price’s and quieted the crowd at the Bell Centre once and for all, it vindicated a performance by the Penguins’ netminder that won’t completely erase memories of his playoff shortcomings against the Canadiens, but it was a victory that certainly had an on-ice playoff atmosphere.
The (inter-)national media can say what it wants, but Fleury earned the right to lightheartedly mock Price’s Vanilla Ice “Word to Your Mother” gesture once the final seconds ticked off. He kept an even keel when Montreal, on multiple occasions, threaten to seize control of the game in the second period.
That was huge, to see the Pens keep their composure when the Habs made their biggest push of the night, and to see them push right back. Simple, efficient puck movement on the power play–which hasn’t always been there for the Pens, even with Sid–led to a game-tying snipe from Tyler Kennedy on the man-advantage not long after Pittsburgh’s newest favorite sports villain, P.K. Subban, had assisted on a go-ahead goal by David Desharnais.
Still, justice wasn’t truly served until Staal beat Price in the closing seconds of the period on a power play tally of his own, the punctuation mark of a three-point night. Subban knew what he was doing–or so it appeared–last spring, and it was long overdue for Staal to announce his offensive presence, and for what went around to come around. Late goals have a tendency to be crushers, and this one turned out no different.
Leaning on a familiar formula for Penguin victories this season–offense coming from defense–Alex Goligoski pinched, crashed and scored, picking up right where Staal left off on the power play for his second tally of the night before Letang and Kunitz teamed up for the game-clinching goal.
It was refreshing to no end to see the Penguins take it to a team, let alone the Canadiens in front of their own fans, in the third period, especially given the fact Price, to that point, had played the kind of game worthy of number-one star consideration.
Instead, they made him look the the “old” Carey Price, the one who Montreal fans–those 20,000-odd folks in the Bell Centre stands who would scream for a bench penalty if Dan Bylsma broke wind–and the team they love once swept under the rug in favor of Jaroslav Halak. Alex Goligoski netted his second, and Kunitz provided the final margin.
Hopefully it means Goose learned a thing or two about being proactive with the puck, and hopefully it means the Penguins have learned a thing or two about running a PP, with or without you-know-who: attack the net and score off traffic and second chances. At any rate, the Penguins did the things necessary to win in a hostile environment and it was about as good a road effort as one could ask for.
They matched the Canadiens’ compete level throughout the game. They got pucks to the net and wore down Price. They out-executed an opponent in both phases of special teams play. They supported their goaltender on the back end and even more so with secondary scoring, which included a big night from a star-crossed Jordan Staal and more points from their defense.
All those things are necessary for the Pens to win as long as their star is on the shelf, which they finally did Wednesday.
As the Penguins go into Boston for a second shot at the Bruins Saturday afternoon, they still have work to do to catch Philadelphia, which kept pace with the Pens Friday night. But at least now they have a number of positives they can and must build upon in order to ensure that what they did Wednesday is the turning of another corner.
On Monday the Bruins left the Penguins mad as hell, and they couldn’t take it anymore. So they responded the best way they could two nights later. Now they have another opportunity to go out and beat the Northeast front-runners, a team playing some of its best hockey of the year, but also a team they’ve had down on the canvas twice.
“And this reporter says, it’s about (bleeping) time.”
For more news and views on the Penguins, be sure to check out “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93-7 The Fan, and also the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on 937thefan.com!