Defensively the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a little lax lately, over the past 11 games coming into today's contest against the Philadelphia Flyers they've given up 6+ goals an alarming four times. In arguably their most hostile enviornment, still with backup netminder Brent Johnson minding the crease, could the buckle down?
Today the answer was yes. Johnson was stellar, stopping 27 of the 28 shots; the only one that eluded him was a nice (but unusual) play made by Jeff Carter. The puck ended up on the back of the net, Carter took a whack and got it back to the playing surface and from behind the cage was able to "Lemieux" it into the net off of the goalie for the game's first goal.
Pittsburgh would get the all-important answering goal before intermission, when Sergei Gonchar skated to the middle of the rink on the power play and let Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko set up a nice screen in front of Ray Emery. Gonchar didn't blast a slapper, but let a wrister go that eluded everyone.
That would be all the scoring for nearly the rest of the game. In the second period Pittsburgh out-shot Philly 11-5. The Pens earned more zone time and seemed to be wearing on the Flyer defensemen. in the third period, the shot trend was reversed (13-6 in favor of Philly).
Gonchar would strike again, for the winner at 1:47, when Sarge, again from straight in front of the net near his blueline took a pass from Evgeni Malkin and unleashed a slapper. This time Matt Cooke was there for the deflection. Game over.
- "We'll kill the ones we have to take, but going back and looking at that game there are just too many penalties that never happened. Simon Gagne didn't high stick anybody.... Scott Hartnell did not, in my opinion, interfere with the goaltender." complained Flyer coach Peter Laviolette after the game. Admittedly, Hartnell had help from Brooks Orpik on that play, but Laviolette shouldn't be whining. Philadelphia enjoyed a 9-6 power play advantage over the course of the game. It wasn't like he got hosed all game long. And, predictably, Laviolette never mentioned the worst call of the game, the "hooking" call on Gonchar with :48 seconds left in the game.
- Still on penalties, Pittsburgh kind of allowed themselves to take penalties in post-whistle scrums, drawing themselves down to Philadelphia's level. Jordan Staal played almost as much on the short-handed unit (7:17) as he did even-strength (10:30). The Pens have to be physical and stick up for each other, but they have to be careful not to fall into the trap of playing the Flyers game.
- Speaking of sticking up for one another: Darroll Powe was fore-checking hard late in the first and finished a check on Alex Goligoski from the side/behind. Goligoski was slow to get up and within seconds Kris Letang (who has 1 regular season fight in 187 games) jumped Powe. When people ask me why I think the Pens have success the first thing I answer is because it is apparent these guys are very closely bonded. The closest member of the team to trouble will stand up and is willing to fight for any teammate who is questionably harmed. It's something special that you don't see everywhere (see the Rangers sitting around watching Daniel Carcillo pound their star Marian Gaborik).
- To the point of a physical game, the two teams combined for: 71 hits (Brooks Orpik leading the way with 8), 52 penalty minutes and 35 blocked shots (led by Chris Pronger's 4). It was an old school slugfest, a lot of hard-nosed, tight checking hockey that saw no 5 on 5 goals.
- Sergei Gonchar skates to the middle of the ice on the power play, unleashes a shot and good things happen. Hopefully everyone has taken note that this might work.
- The Pens PK was good, going 8 for 9. That unit has slipped recently, so it was good to see them pretty much to a man all fulfill their roles. Props to Staal, Cooke, Gonchar, Orpik, Jay McKee, Mark Eaton, Craig Adams who all played more than 4:47 of SH out there. Credit, of course to Johnson who stopped 13 of 14 Flyer PP shots.
- Did you notice that Dan Bylsma had enough faith and confidence in Nick Johnson to play him with 3 minutes left in the 3rd period of a 1-1 game, on the road in Philly? I did. N. Johnson didn't disappoint, as he was the closest Pen pressuring Kimmo Timonen who choked and put the puck over the glass (Cooke would score the GWG on the ensuing PP). Sometimes it's the little things..
- Did you notice (part 2): Sidney Crosby is starting to kick into the penalty kill unit a little more. El Sid rang two shots off posts today and Philly fans still like to chant that he sucks. The only thing that really sucks is Philadelphia's winning percentage against the Penguins since Crosby's been in the league.
- The Penguins are gonna be on NBC for three straight weeks. Jeez, no wonder the rest of the league's fans are a little tired of Pittsburgh (and Crosby) over-exposure. There are other good teams in the league to showcase, NBC.
Winning a division game, on the road is always an impressive win. There's no time for relishing it too much, as the boys get a quick turnaround to play in Manhattan tomorrow night against a bi-polar New York Ranger team who's currently reeling, having been out-scored 8-0 in their last two games (the two games before that, they won by the combined score of 14-4).