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Praising the Penguins’ 4-on-3 penalty kill and Zach Aston-Reese’s gutsy sequence

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In the final seconds of 3v3 OT, the Penguins’ PK sacrificed their bodies to push their tilt with the Isles to a shootout.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As most hockey fans will lament, the daunting feeling that festers in their gut when witnessing their team take an untimely penalty in 3-on-3 overtime is awful. Seeing that extra man from the opposing team spring up from the bench on the man-advantage in arguably the most exciting (and nerve-racking) situation in the NHL is like watching a nightmare unfold right in front of you.

Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but it definitely sucks.

This exact feeling washed over me the moment Derick Brassard got nailed for a bad tripping call with just enough time left for the Islanders to prevail in overtime like they did in an earlier meeting with the Penguins back on November 1. But what transpired into those final minutes was an amalgamation of anxiety and stress accompanied by gutsy and heroic plays, given the circumstances.

Overtime started off really well for Pittsburgh’s top 3-on-3 unit. Sidney Crosby won the crucial opening faceoff to gain possession. They were swarming and circling in New York’s end, creating space, passing well, and getting chances on net. The Islanders couldn’t get it out of their zone. About two minutes in, Brassard found a lane and tried to net a wrap-around to no avail. Despite Robin Lehner’s solid goaltending, the stars seemed to be aligning for Pittsburgh to grab that coveted extra point.

Then the Islanders fans’ angry reaction to a pretty incidental trip by Brassard, who was trying to poke the puck away from Valtteri Filppula, sent him to the box. All the momentum the Penguins garnered in the opening two minutes was washed away, and on came the penalty kill.

The PK unit lost the defensive zone faceoff and immediately set up in the triangle formation to protect Casey DeSmith. Things got a little dicey at first, with guys like Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, and Josh Bailey managing to find space. Due to some incredible efforts to block one-timers, I’m not even positive DeSmith had to make more than a single save in this 30-second period. Bryan Rust fearlessly got in front of two early shots, Jack Johnson stifled any chance of a rebound getting pushed through, and the unit cleared the puck before another NYI sequence could be set up.

On came Zach Aston-Reese and Derek Grant, the tension still burning.

The Islanders managed to cycle around the back of DeSmith’s cage to set up yet another one-timer by Ryan Pulock at the left circle. This one found its way to DeSmith, who fought it off, but lost his stick in the process due to the insane force behind the shot. That was the moment my heart sunk. Here was a paddle-less DeSmith facing a power play unit with its confidence building and with no opportunity to pick it up off the ice before a clear.

Penguin penalty killers were falling all over the ice at every Islanders’ open look to assist DeSmith. Pulock teed up two more powerful one-timers back-to-back from the point that Aston-Reese heroically stood in front of to block — one looking like it crushed the bones in his left hand. Grant then gobbled up the loose puck and flung it all the way down to the opposite end.

DeSmith didn’t face a single shot without his stick. Not one.

New York would make one more attempt with less than 10 seconds remaining in its fourth and final power play try, but it came up empty. Pittsburgh’s PK was perfect on the night, and along with DeSmith’s unreal performance between the pipes, it was the main reason the Penguins even had a chance to come away with a shootout victory.