No surprises for the Penguins, who stick with the same skater combinations they’ve used this week in practice. Actually, maybe make that one surprise in that Alex Nedeljkovic gets the first nod tonight in the first half of the back-to-back, in a break from norms that usually sees the starter go on night one.
Lined up and ready for the Panthers pic.twitter.com/1O9gtHYG4M— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 26, 2024
Early on, Carter Verhaeghe gets caught hooking Kris Letang in the Pittsburgh end, and low and behold the Pens’ top power play scores. Former Penguin Dmitri Kulikov breaks his stick and instead of switching out for another stick or stand around and try to body someone out, he elects to instead skate right to the bench for a new twig. With Kulikov gone from his position, Jake Guentzel is all alone on the doorstep. Bryan Rust recognizes this and throws the puck down there. Guentzel chips it into the net. 1-0 Pens, only 1:51 into the game.
A POWER-PLAY GOAL— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 27, 2024
Jake Guentzel has seven goals (7G-4A) in his last ten games against the Florida Panthers. pic.twitter.com/I9y17EBHOK
The good times don’t last long. Marcus Pettersson continues his shaky recent defensive play by latching on and pulling down Aleksander Barkov to send Florida to a matching power play. And they match the Pittsburgh goal.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson shoots from the point and a weird bounce goes off Nedeljkovic’s blocker, hits up high on Evan Rodrigues and drops to the playing surface. Rodrigues finds the puck before Ryan Graves can get back in the picture. 1-1 game.
Dare we say... Evan Rodrigues revenge game? pic.twitter.com/3VGt7KanLs— Bally Sports Florida & Bally Sports Sun (@BallySportsFL) January 27, 2024
The game gets chippy, Jeff Carter eases a little backhander into Sergei Bobrovsky well after a whistle for a hand pass and Matthew Tkachuk and the rest of the Panthers freak out. The irony is dripping after Tkachuk had used his touch on the delayed penalty earlier to fire the puck into the net. On the next draw, Ryan Lomberg tries to fight Carter and is laughed off.
A bit later, Evgeni Malkin goes to lean into a big hit on Aleksander Barkov but he spins away at the last seconds. Both teams have their ire up and are gunning for it now.
The period ends before anymore fireworks. The score is even, Pittsburgh is up modestly with a 10-8 shot edge after 20.
Early on, Ryan Lomberg gives Sidney Crosby a few punches and takes a minor penalty. Nothing much comes of it.
Kris Letang trips a player and on the delayed call ends up bumping Aleksander Barkov away from the play. Barkov goes down into the boards and Florida comes after Letang. The refs initially assess a major penalty but have an automatic view and reduce the second leg of the incident down to a minor for interference. As such, the Panthers get a four minute 5v4 situation for Letang being sidelined for two separate infractions.
Pittsburgh holds on for a bit but Sam Reinhart does what he does after Marcus Pettersson fails to clear the zone and scores on the power play with a rolling puck for his 36th (!!) goal of the season. The only saving grace is that 2:01 ticked off the power play and the Pens are no longer short-handed. But Florida takes a 2-1 lead.
Hey , Reino scored, also the sky is blue pic.twitter.com/LI7uHEEhWv— Bally Sports Florida: Panthers (@BallyPanthers) January 27, 2024
Drew O’Connor gets tripped up on the rush to earn the Pens a power play of their own. Nikko Mikkola almost sends the Pens down bad on a 3v2 SH rush but his shot hits the crossbar. Sam Bennett puts Florida in a 3v5 situation when he cross-checks Letang and then keeps going ham after the whistle.
Crosby sets Guentzel up in front of the net but Bobrovsky reads and gets a leg to it. Malkin tries a redirect on a Erik Karlsson shot, no dice but then Malkin sets Rust up for a look and he shoots wide. No goal on the long power play, but some signs of life at least, which is more than you can say about most.
When play cycles through, Letang drops a shoulder and levels a Panther player on a clean enough looking hit. Anton Lundell punches Letang in the face and Pittsburgh is right back to the power play. They get nothing after it but have 54 seconds to carryover in the next period.
Wild period but Florida goes 1 for 2 on their power plays in this frame and the Pens sit a 0/5 in the middle frame and that’s the difference in the game after 40 minute.
The power play comes and goes, as does another golden chance when Sam Bennett takes a drive by hit on Rickard Rakell in the neutral zone to afford the Pens a seventh chance on the night. Nothing.
O’Connor set Malkin up for a glorious chance in front of the net but he couldn’t beat the goalie.
Hard work from Noel Acciari forces a Panther to take him down and Pittsburgh is granted yet one more power play deep into the game with 5:25 to go. Crosby gets a whack from in close, Guentzel has a shot from in deep. Nothing works.
All hope looks lost but Pittsburgh lifts Nedeljkovic for an extra attacker. They score with 45 seconds to go. Karlsson does well to hold the puck in the zone and eventually it bounds down to Crosby near the net. The captain bumps a pass over for Malkin on the right side and his shot goes off Bobrovsky and in for the tying goal. 2-2.
Malkin ties it with under a minute to go pic.twitter.com/NJAvP7Ur9Z— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) January 27, 2024
At the literal last moment, the Pens earn a point in the standings.
Crosby-Guentzel-Karlsson start for the Pens but they lose the draw. In fact, Florida controls the all-important puck possession for the first two minutes of OT.
The Pens then take control but Crosby is bumped off the puck leading to a Brandon Montour clean breakaway. Nedeljkovic goes full YOLO and it works in thrilling fashion with a sprawling pokecheck to negate the chance after correctly reading that Montour was dekeing to his backhand from the right side.
The boys on both sides play hard until the end, where fittingly Malkin and Montour clash with punches thrown after the OT whistle at the end of the real hockey. It’ll take a shootout to decide the game.
The Pens go first and it’s Ricky Raks. He comes in slow, Bobrovsky outwaits him and eventually he runs out of an angle to hit the outside of the post.
Lundell is first up for FLA, his quick, low forehand shot is stymied by Nedeljkovic.
Crosby goes for the Pens but is turned away by Bob.
Barkov is up next, he snaps a five-hole shot in. 1-0 FLA.
Guentzel for the do-or-die moment. Bobrovsky appears to get his glove to the shot but the puck isn’t in it and rolls int the net.
The reprieve is short-lasted. Reinhart comes in quickly and snaps a puck farside and in on Nedeljkovic. Florida takes the win.
- Can’t knock Dmitri Kulikov for going off the ice without a stick, especially in first/third periods when the bench is close by to the defensive end. I’ve always advocated for that and wondered why NHL players opt to just stand around without a stick. Sure there’s some value if it’s a forward they can try to block the shooting/passing lanes and give some value by using their body to get in the way, but really there’s no point to have the value of 4.25 players out there instead of 5 (or 3.25 on the PK), when you can just change quickly and get a guy back in a few seconds. But that movement and mindset might have been permanently set back by that decision. That wasn’t the time or place for Kulikov to completely abandon his post, without even trying to get a forward’s stick.
- To that end, if Evan Rodrigues completed the “forwards always score against their former team” trope, at least Kulikov gave it back for the bad defensive defenseman gifting his old team a goal.
- Really, really liked Carter stirring the pot by deciding to play a little after the whistle in the first period. He didn’t drive over the goalie or send a big shot in to be completely unsportsmanlike, but he took the opportunity to send a message back in retaliation to Florida after Tkachuk was more aggro than he needed to be in a similar situation to send the message. The Pens obviously don’t have any tough guys or thrive on post-whistle shenanigans but that served as a savvy veteran move to stand up a little bit and raise the temperature to drag his team into the fight.
- The goalie splits for this back-to-back proved to be an interesting strategy. Conventional wisdom says play the top guy in night one, when the team in front of him is fresh and focus on the first game. But Florida tonight (on paper) is a lot tougher than Montreal tomorrow. The move really proved Mike Sullivan has a lot of faith in giving Nedeljkovic the tough opponent (and fresh team) while saving his starter for tomorrow. Fairly bold and calculated coaching move that you don’t see every occasion. Nedeljkovic more than held up his end of the bargain with 30 saves on 32 shots and zero even strength goals allowed.
- The Pens’ power play scored a rare goal on their first chance of the night, then had seven more opportunities and got zero more goals. Ugly stuff. The Panthers were getting down and dirty and the refs were penalizing them appropriately, but Pittsburgh couldn’t and didn’t accept all the gifts. What more is there to say at this point?
- But don’t let the very real power play struggles fool you, the Pens generated almost nothing at even strength (which a late goal 6v5 doesn’t count). The Crosby line was quiet and no one else stepped up to get anything going. Power play issues are real, but it’s difficult if not impossible to win in this league while doing nothing at even strength either. The Panthers are a great defensive team, as the game preview foretold, and they lived up to that.
- That said, whether 5v5 or 6v5, it’s a big point that the team might have squandered to at least get something out of this. The Panthers are mighty good, no shame in taking something out of this one and moving on (especially when for the last 40 minutes it was looking increasingly clear that a defeat was imminent).
The Pens drop a game in the gimmick against one of the best teams in the East. But now they’ll have to regroup and look to finish out before the All Star break tomorrow against Montreal.