Game 1 of the Penguins’ 12-day west coast road trip inside Honda Center against a seriously struggling Ducks’ team appeared to be the easiest bet in sports.
Anaheim hadn’t won a single game since its last victory in Pittsburgh back on December 17, where the Ducks rallied with four consecutive goals after falling 2-0 early to win 4-2 in regulation. Team captain Ryan Getzlaf hadn’t scored on home ice since the end of November. Head coach Randy Carlyle’s seat was growing hotter by the second, the offense couldn't find the back of the net more than once a night to save their lives, and Anaheim’s record was an abysmal 0-6-3 coming in.
Anyone could’ve strutted into a casino, put a tenner on the Ducks winning this matchup handily, and walked out much richer. It was set up too perfectly.
After suffering an early 3-0 deficit, those gamblers were no doubt smiling to themselves. Evgeni Malkin decided to ice the puck instead of take two more strides and dump it for a line change. The ensuing offensive sequence for the Ducks ended in an errant puck hitting off of Jack Johnson and in. Getzlaf, of course, netted a goal on home ice. Daniel Sprong netted a goal against his former team. Matt Murray’s winning streak was looking to be effectively over. How could this team conjure an offensive shooting gallery and put at least four goals past the stellar John Gibson, who was making saves like this:
JOHN GIBSON IS THIS LEAGUE'S BEST GOALIE #GibHimTheVezina | #GibHimTheHart pic.twitter.com/CPp1d47Smz— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) January 12, 2019
Things were looking very bleak. Prior to this tilt, Pittsburgh was 1-11-0 all-time when trailing the Ducks after two. History wasn't on the team’s side.
And then the Penguins’ first line, led by an exceptional Jake Guentzel, seized control of everything and turned the tides with just one shift.
They didn’t score on that explosive shift, but the Ducks had no chance once they engaged. Bryan Rust and Sidney Crosby were flying all over the ice, finding open looks, flinging pucks on net in bunches, threading passes to seemingly impossible areas, and generating scoring chance after scoring chance. They were being given longer shifts by Mike Sullivan — one even went for a whopping 2:14. Anaheim’s defensive unit had absolutely no idea how to defend the 87 line. Their on-ice possession numbers soared off the page. At some points, you couldn’t help but feel bad for the Ducks.
“They’re just so hard to defend against down underneath the hash marks. They support each other so well, they hang onto pucks, they protect pucks, they don’t throw them away, and they’re patient,” said Sullivan after the game. “They wait for their opportunities. They’re physically fit guys. So the longer that shift goes on, we feel like it’s an advantage to us because those guys are so fit. Their fitness level is so high. That’s the type of game I thought Sid’s line had. They were dominant all night long. Sid, just as an individual, had a dominant game.”
They created chaos in front of Gibson and overwhelmed the Ducks’ defenders to the tune of seven goals in the final two periods to win 7-4 and keep Murray’s streak alive. The Crosby line was responsible for 12 of the Penguins’ 36 shots, with seven coming from Guentzel and five coming from Rust. It was only the second regular season road victory after being down three goals after one period, dating back to a 5-4 win over the Flyers in 2013 that featured a 1-4 deficit after the opening 20 minutes.
The Penguins took a team in the midst of an agonizing stretch, teased them with a big lead, and then pounded whatever amount of hope was still left out of them. It was a demoralizing loss for Anaheim, but a wild ride to the finish for Pittsburgh. The shot chart agreed.
Guentzel’s hat trick put him just one goal away from matching his total from last season (22) in just 44 games played. He has seven goals in his last five road games played. His contract extension and price tag just keep looking better and better.
This win is truly a testament to how far the Penguins have come in just a few short months.