By Matt Popchock
When the Penguins don their blue throwback uniforms, whether they’re the colonial blues or the new navy ones that debuted in this year’s Winter Classic, sometimes they play like the Penguin teams from that era. And I don’t mean that in a flattering way.
On Saturday, however, we saw a blue-collar effort at the Consol Energy Center, both literally and figuratively, that led to a nice win over a Carolina team that has held its own against Pittsburgh in recent regular season history.
It’s true what the one-hit Eighties wonder Cinderella once crooned: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Only when Sidney Crosby is concussed and Evgeni Malkin is, at the same time, nursing multiple ailments can one fully appreciate how much better they make the Penguins.
You can’t be the best finesse team in hockey without two of the best finesse players on the planet. So the Pens, to their credit, did exactly what they needed to against the hungry Hurricanes. They put will ahead of skill.
Without Sid and Geno, the most reasonable expectation for the Penguins seems to be simply treading water. Playing at least .500 until one, the other, or both return, will come down to battles of attrition, battles of work ethic, and battles with oneself. The last four minutes Saturday were a little more exciting than they probably should have been, but the bottom line is, the Penguins won all those battles.
At any rate, Mark Letestu told the Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari after the game, a la Bob Prince, that he and his teammates had ‘em all the way. Maybe there’s something to his boast.
Low-scoring hockey games usually come down to which team is grittier, and which can score a garbage goal–more than once, if necessary. Late in the second period, Kris Letang, who tied Max Talbot with a game-high five hits, pinched on a play in the Hurricanes’ zone and paid a physical price to get the puck back to Brooks Orpik. Orpik fed Dustin Jeffrey, who broke the scoreless tie from long range, largely because Cam Ward was well screened.
Neither of Jeffrey’s two NHL goals this season have been pretty, but this one, like the one credited to him in Buffalo on Dec. 11, was made possible because of bodies in front of the goaltender. That’s blue-collar hockey.
Letestu, a recent Wilkes-Barre/Scranton teammate of Jeffrey’s, and like Jeffrey, someone the Penguins rely upon for extra energy, gave the Pens breathing room with some extra energy…and when they were playing with an extra man, no less. He scored a rare power play goal early in the third by crashing the net, something the Pens don’t always do enough on the man-advantage.
Good things tend to happen when players do what Letestu did. Another fine example of blue-collar hockey.
With the ‘Canes on a power play of their own and still plenty of time remaining in regulation, the Penguins’ penalty killers, as they have done so often, outworked Carolina’s special teams and produced what proved to be the game-winning goal from the stick of Pascal Dupuis. Duper didn’t have a clean breakaway, but he outskated his man to score on a tricky backhander.
It was part of a 5-for-5 effort by the PK, and with that, the Penguins had gradually and effectively ground down the Hurricanes. Down 3-0, Carolina looked beaten and disinterested from that point forward until an impressive goal by Sergei Samsonov a tad too late in the third woke up the team.
The ‘Canes placed the outcome back in doubt during the final minute, but, though probably haunted by inner demons of blown leads and losses that shouldn’t have been, the Pens again outworked them. They took away the middle of the ice and minimized the number of quality chances Carolina had with Cam Ward pulled by blocking shots, clearing the puck efficiently, and jamming the Hurricanes along the boards. This time, they banded together to hold a suddenly uncomfortable lead, instead of falling apart.
Once again, blue-collar hockey.
The Penguins were without their two best forwards Saturday, but they were not without the proverbial elbow grease, which is what gave them two points. They killed penalties. They worked for their goals. They kept the disparity in faceoff wins negligible minus their best faceoff man. They supported Marc-Andre Fleury well, blocking 18 shots, with seven different players getting into the act.
Speaking of shots, they managed more than the ‘Canes, who presumably had as much, if not more, offensive depth than the Penguins without Nos. 87 and 71 on the ice.
Saturday was the poster for how the Penguins must play in order to enter the much-needed All-Star break on a positive note at home tonight versus the New York Islanders, a team that has recently given the Penguins more trouble than it probably has a right to. They must play a hard-working game, play a physical game, play a patient game, and play an opportunistic game.
Furthermore, should Sid and Geno miss further action, the Penguins must continue counting on the muckers and grinders like Letestu and Jeffrey to seize the day, and count on guys like Jordan Staal to continue contributing on special teams and skating on even terms with premier players like brother Eric, which was the case Saturday.
Old-time hockey? Eddie Shore?
In a manner of speaking, yes.
For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on 937thefan.com!