In the last week, the Penguins have played the NY Rangers, Columbus, Tampa and Carolina. It was a challenging stretch, with three of those teams in playoff position and the one outlier in the Blue Jackets were playing good hockey, had won seven of their previous nine games.
Pittsburgh dealt with the increase in competition by going 3-0-1, falling short of perfection when they let a third period lead on the road in Carolina last night turn into an overtime loss. That is quite the response overall in the last week, especially considering the Pens had lost their prior three games the week before, including their most flat and disappointing performance in recent memory in a 6-1 loss to New Jersey on February 24th.
What have we learned in recent days and games about the Pens? Things we’ve seen and liked (or haven’t)?
“Emotion on both sides”
That’s a phrase Mike Sullivan used to describe the intensity of the game after a 5-1 win over Tampa on Thursday, which was one of the Pens’ biggest and most impressive wins since probably their 6-2 win in Tampa on opening night way back in October. Opening night games (especially with a banner raising) are one level, an important March game is another.
Emotions have been running high as teams jockey for position now with the NHL season entering something of it’s stretch run. No one wants to give ground. The Pens’ last two games against the Lightning and Hurricanes have featured more post-whistle chirps, pushing, scrums, punches, fights than the team has dealt with then probably the first 50 games of the season combined.
Along the lines of that emotion, Jon Cooper got himself ejected from a game and turned a 4v5 situation into a 3v5 by abusing officials from the bench. Not a great look for him what was a 3-1 game that his team still had a chance in. That benefited the Penguins, but the tables turn in overtime against Carolina, when Kris Letang’s frustration boiled over and resulted in a poor decision to attack Vincent Trocheck and take a penalty.
Controlling and bottling emotion to use it the right way in high-stress moments is critical this time of year.
Have said this a few times, but the sudden turnaround for Marcus Pettersson (probably the worst player on the ice last week against the Devils) has been remarkable. Pettersson played 19:34 against Tampa on Thursday and was basically flawless in his defensive efforts against Nikita Kucherov. He followed that up by breaking the 20 minute barrier (20:14) for the first time since late-November against Carolina in another solid game.
With Mike Matheson out for weeks, Pittsburgh needed a defender from somewhere down the lineup to step up. Pettersson has answered the call in a major way. His performances can vary so much from bad to good, and he is a player whose confidence ebbs and flows as well, so who knows what the future might hold, but the Pens will no doubt be hoping he can lock into this current zone he has found and continue his strong play.
Coaching decisions and trends are something that is fun to follow, especially between two of the best in Mike Sullivan and Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour. The Hurricanes have sought matching Jordan Staal against Evgeni Malkin. It’s resulted in Staal scoring three goals with Malkin on the ice in the two games. (And linemate Jesper Fast added another goal in the first game, albeit against the Jeff Carter line).
In fact, look at this trend of the five goals the Penguins have scored against the Hurricanes this season: Bryan Rust, Sidney Crosby, Evan Rodrigues (6v4 power play), Crosby, Jake Guentzel. The Pens have not scored a goal against Carolina without both Crosby and Guentzel on the ice.
That’s not something that is forward-looking or necessarily says anything moving forward for a future potential playoff matchup, but certainly stands out. The Guentzel-Crosby-Rust trio has really taken it to the Andrei Svechnikov-Sebastian Aho-Teuvo Teravainen top line (none of whom have an even strength point against the Pens in the two games).