By Matt Popchock
No Crosby, no Malkin, no Letestu…and suddenly no Staal? No problem, apparently.
Well, okay, there were some problems.
They only seemed to mount as Tuesday’s game went on. But adversity reveals character, which the Penguins displayed in turning it around and escaping Madison Square Garden with two points.
For a Rangers squad that has grown accustomed to chasing teams like the Penguins and has done a fine job of it this season despite their own health issues, this seemed like a typical heart-breaker. Conversely, there was nothing typical about what the Pens did here.
It’s easy for the casual observer to say the regular season doesn’t matter, because in many ways, it doesn’t once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. However, the regular season is what gets you there, and often times a regular season game can serve as a positive turning point for teams that go deep.
If the 2010-11 Penguins are destined to embark on another memorable spring journey, they will look back on Tuesday as one of those turning points.
While the Pens were getting unhealthier and unluckier, the Blueshirts were doing quite the opposite. The day started off with fourth-line center Mark Letestu going down during the morning skate, and key components Brandon Dubinsky, Dan Girardi, and Nov. 15 villain Ryan Callahan rejoining a team that was right behind the Penguins in the standings and could have given themselves a nice emotional boost against an Atlantic Division rival that has frustrated them in recent years.
It looked like the Rangers were going to get that lift when Brandon Prust and Artem Anisimov beat Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Pens had trouble breaking the Scandinavian dam that is Henrik Lundqvist. But the game did a temporary 180° when Dustin Jeffrey picked up where his team left off in their final pre-All-Star victory against the Islanders last week.
The Penguins got the only goal of that game through simplification and net-front presence, something Dan Bylsma talks about ad nauseam. That’s how the Penguins swung momentum dramatically in their favor in this one too. Jeffrey simply ripped a shot on Lundqvist off a faceoff win–through a screen, mind you–that found the twine moments into a much-needed power play. Mike Rupp tied the game by driving the net on a rebound and finishing the play…another basic concept. Chris Kunitz really quieted the MSG faithful by getting in front of Lundqvist and redirecting another slap shot from up high. Suddenly King Henrik looked like a serf.
Speaking of Bylsma, it was looking like one of his better coaching jobs of the regular season. The Penguins were behind, and they didn’t have the horses to be what they normally are, but clearly, they didn’t panic, and they adhered to Bylsma’s teachings despite facing a great challenge in what could prove to be a significant divisional game depending on what else happens in February and March.
The 180° became a 360° when Jordan Staal was ejected for cold-cocking Prust for presumably harassing Tyler Kennedy. Some say the decision to excuse the Penguins’ last available (regular) center for the night was a questionable one by officials, but the fact of the matter is, a veteran and an assistant captain should know better. When you take a retaliatory swing at someone, in any context, you’re putting yourself in a very liable position, whether you like the call or not.
At any rate, the Rangers evened the score with a power play goal of their own in the closing seconds of the period, a period that saw Arron Asham not participate due to an unspecified injury and the Penguins lose the last of their top three forwards. I sat there wondering what else could go wrong for this team, and how they were going to escape with one point, much less two. Short of Tony Granato taking off the coat and tie and eating up some minutes on the first line, things didn’t look promising.
Late goals, even if they aren’t game winners, tend to be killers, so it came as no surprise that the Rangers dictated the play for almost the entire third period. However, the Penguins, led by their defense, their penalty killers, and their Flower, made sure the hosts had nothing to show for it in what I believe was one of their better group efforts of the season.
By the time the night was over, an opponent that had spent over ten minutes on the man-advantage had scored just once in that span, a victory for the Pens. By the time sudden-death OT rolled around, they started spending more time in the offensive zone and pushed the game to a shootout, another victory in itself for the Pens.
Both netminders were their usual dominant selves in the shootout; give Fleury some brownie points for his save on Callahan and for ending a 4-for-4 streak by promising rookie Mats Zuccarello, and give the same to Lundqvist for denying the often automatic Kris Letang and making a difficult sliding save on Kunitz.
Ultimately, though, this game had one other x-factor besides the aforementioned work of the Penguins’ defense and Marc-Andre Fleury. It was Jeffrey stepping in for an injured forward once more, and not missing a beat. Leave it to one of the AHL’s top guns to snipe the most significant goal of his short NHL career to give the shorthanded Penguins a remarkable come-from-behind win.
Champions overcome. The Penguins overcame.
One must give Bylsma credit here as well. There’s a reason his players practice shootouts more or less on a daily basis, and why he runs such offbeat drills as their much-publicized “Moustache Boy” competition. He knows beyond reasonable doubt who will thrive in such a situation, and his playing of the percentages and knowledge of his own team seemed to have paid off.
As the Penguins wait to learn more about Asham and Letestu and wait for the eminent returns of Staal (whom I expect to be back tonight) and Evgeni Malkin, they head home to face the New York Islanders with a big two points. Psychologically it might be their biggest two points in quite some time.
Momentum is only as good as the Penguins are back home tonight, and the same kind of gritty performance is required against a Long Island bunch that has played to the level of their divisional brethren even in defeat. Anything less, and what the Pens did Tuesday can just as easily be undone.
However, the thing we can take from this dramatic victory is that regular season hockey isn’t meaningless. It shows us what teams can handle adversity at its most extreme, and thus, who is most likely to survive the adversity of playoff hockey for an extended period of time. The Penguins have shown they are one of those teams, stealing momentum and the game from the New York Rangers as though yanking a rug from beneath their skates.
It was truly a “Manhattan Transfer.”
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 to check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog at 937thefan.com!