Down so many players to injuries and suspensions, from superstar forwards to depth players to literally the entirety of the top four defense, the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably going to have to try and muck out dirty games until after the abbreviated Christmas break. They’ll need solid goaltending, a reliable penalty kill, win a majority of the faceoffs and a timely goal scored or setup from Sidney Crosby.
And, for one night, that plan above almost worked all the way to perfection as the Penguins scratched, clawed and won an ugly (but beautiful) 3-1 game over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Pens opened the scoring on the first shift of the game, when Brian Dumoulin- playing in just his second career NHL game- found Chris Conner for a deflection past Jonathan Bernier for an early lead. Pittsburgh would cling to that lead until Morgan Reilly scored his first career NHL goal on the PP in the second period.
The score would remain that way well into the 3rd, where Dan Bylsma found an advantage. Toronto left defensemen John-Michael Liles and Jake Gardiner out for a defensive zone draw and didn’t have Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, the usual top pairing that did an excellent job on the Crosby line all night. The Pens would make Toronto pay for this oversight, Robert Bortuzzo kept a puck in the zone along the wall and Pascal Dupuis threw a great pass off the wall in for Crosby, all alone in the middle of the ice. You already know what comes next: goal.
From there the Pens hung on for dear life, but not before giving up one more power play on a sloppy play by Chris Kunitz, who really should know better than to take a player down in his own zone like he did in the last minute. Still, the PK players stepped to bat one more time and Brandon Sutter salted the win with an empty net goal just before time ticked out.
An uglier win never will look prettier. Some more thoughts on the game:
- Bortuzzo had a very active game, recording an assist, getting into a spirited first period fight with Troy Bodie, 6 hits, 2 blocked shots, catching 5’10 Jerry D’Amigo with two huge checks, yapping at a lot of Leafs during breaks of games. Might have been Bortuzzo’s most visible NHL game of his entire 40 game NHL career.
- Matt Niskanen, as expected, led the Pens with 25:39 played. His d-partner, Olli Maatta wasn’t far behind with 24:17, and the teenaged Maatta actually played a minute more on the PK, being as Niskanen took a penalty. Maatta-Niskanen had to match the James van Riemsdyk – Nazem Kadri – Phil Kessel line all night, and they did so exceptionally well with 4 hits, 4 blocked shots and a takeaway between the two of them.
- Marc-Andre Fleury was quietly the Pens backbone, stopping 25 of 26 shots on goal and playing a calm and steady game, including going back behind the net several times to stop pucks and help his young defense.
- Just when you thought the team could make it one game without injury, Jayson Megna suffered some sort of leg injury when he collided with Bernier at full-speed and would not return. Megna was playing on the makeshift 2nd line, which might get even more makeshift should he not be able to play next game Wednesday night.
- The Pens threw 31 shots on goal, with all players in the lineup except Chuck Kobasew and Phillip Samuelsson getting at least on shot on goal.
- It’s a team game part 2: 13 of the 18 skaters registered a hit, helping the Pens to officially out-hit the Leafs 36-25. Ten Penguins had 2+ hits too.
- In his NHL debut, Samuelsson skated 15:43 (inflated slightly by the Pens defense taking 11 minutes in penalties) and had one shot on goal blocked and 2 giveaways. But, most importantly, he was on the ice for 0 goals against in that 15:43, which is really all the Pens needed.
- Pittsburgh was great on faceoffs, winning 57% of the 75 draws on the night. Jussi Jokinen (82% on 11 faceoffs), Brandon Sutter (57% on 23 faceoffs) and Crosby (55% on 31 draws) all had solid nights in the circle.
In the end, it’s great to move on and put 2 points in the pocket after that game. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. The Pens found a way to win despite their depleted roster, so credit, to a man, to all the players and coaches. They’re going to have to dig deep to get results for the next couple of games, and they did just that tonight.