By Matt Popchock
It took a little longer than he wanted, but to borrow some coach-speak from Dan Bylsma, the Penguins ultimately got to their game in outlasting the Colorado Avalanche Wednesday night.
The key word here is “outlast.”
The Pens had to work overtime on the penultimate leg of their four-game road trip, in more ways than one. Yet they emerged from Denver with two points, which hadn’t happened since Feb. 25, 1999 at McNichols Sports Arena, the original home of the Avs, and had never happened at the Pepsi Center.
This is because of a unique type of home-ice advantage the Avalanche possess in spite of their pedestrian 14-14-4 record in that building, or so Bylsma’s staff would have you believe.
Even for the most physically well-conditioned athlete, playing the fastest game on the planet in the Mile High City is, forgive the pun, a tall task, especially if you haven’t walked a mile in the home team’s skates. The Penguins knew this heading into Wednesday’s contest, and they knew it meant shortening shifts, a potentially important adjustment.
Until Bylsma’s players found their sea legs in an atmosphere 5,280 feet above sea level, his staff talked before the game about skating them on an average of 30 to 40 seconds per shift. Because of how hard it is for players to breathe the unusually thin air of the Rocky Mountains, making them breathe less of it at a time would help the Penguins keep up with a team that lives in it, a team that had every reason to believe it could beat a Penguin squad that isn’t at its most lethal capability and plays in Denver very infrequently.
Joe Sacco’s Avalanche have this down to a science. Defenseman John-Michael Liles was the only one of his teammates to skate for 50 seconds or more per shift, logging an average of 50 on the button–a more typical number for a typical NHL player–not to mention a game-high 25:05 of ice time.
In contrast, 12 different Penguins averaged at least 50 seconds of ice time per shift. They played outside their comfort zone, a concept that shouldn’t be at all bewildering to them at this point, but those who played instrumental roles in Wednesday’s victory still were able to use their time efficiently.
Joe Vitale scored his first NHL goal by beating Peter Budaj over the right shoulder on a shift that lasted only 33 seconds. That goal came shortly after Bylsma used his timeout unusually early, as the Avs had the Pens on their heels, and Bylsma’s team was struggling with the drastic climate change.
Just 32 seconds after Cameron Gaunce got his own first career tally give Colorado its only lead of the night, Jordan Staal tied the game on an odd-man rush. Staal’s 24:26 of total ice time led the Pens in that category, but he only needed 21 seconds to score that game-changing goal.
Killing off a two-man advantage before the second period also loomed large, not only because it was a momentum swing for the visitors, but because it was the last time the Pens would be shorthanded. The Penguins drew five minor penalties over the last three periods, including the tripping call against Zbynek Michalek that led to Tyler Kennedy’s game-winner in OT, arguably putting the Avs in a position where some of their most necessary players would not be able to conserve energy as the game wore on.
Michalek had another nice game, overcoming the thin air to log over 21 minutes of ice time, to help kill the majority of Colorado’s aforementioned 5-on-3, and block three shots. He needed just 13 seconds to give his team the decisive power play chance.
Kennedy, who continues to silence critics, needed just 36 seconds of ice time to score, and he logged nearly 18 minutes in all–an above-average night for him as far as that category is concerned.
At the end of the day, my time-on-ice breakdown from Wednesday’s game may be inconsequential (and sleep-inducing, I might add), but it still illustrates the character of this Penguin team. They went to a place that has been unkind to their predecessors, and although they weren’t able to adjust their plan exactly the way they wanted to, they still played opportunistically enough–with the aid of a well-timed stoppage by Bylsma–to beat a team that needed a win even more than they did.
The Malkin- and Crosby-less Pens didn’t just defy the odds again; in a way, they defied science as well.
Still want to write this team off?
Save your breath.
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