Coming off a performance where they allowed six goals in a loss to the Flyers on Wednesday, Pittsburgh rebounded by putting on a defensive clinic against the Florida Panthers on their way to a 3-1 win Friday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Pens outshot Florida 40-23, but were knotted at one entering the third. Pittsburgh’s offense ignited for two goals down the stretch to put some distance between them and the youthful Panthers.
Matt Niskanen scored the game-winning goal 7:49 into the third period – just seconds after a penalty to Tomas Kopecky expired – while Matt Cooke sent a pretty pass to Dustin Jeffrey for the insurance goal with 4:45 remaining.
Evgeni Malkin left the game in the third period after falling awkwardly into the boards and did not return. For the full update on his status, click here
This was one of the Pens’ grittier games of the season, outhitting the Panthers 20-11.
The Penguins had a tough time figuring out Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom for two and a half periods, but Niskanen’s goal, his third of the season, broke the tie and sent the Pens onto a hard earned win.
Just about as Kopecky stepped foot out of the penalty box, Kris Letang sent a pass across the blue line and into the awaiting wind up of Niskanen’s slap shot. The puck buzzed through the Florida zone untouched and right into the back of the Florida net.
“I wasn’t trying to shoot high glove or anything, I was trying to shoot it off his pad near post,” Niskanen said. “But Tanger made a nice pass and sometimes those go in, surprised him maybe.”
Dustin Jeffrey has been waiting for his opportunity. Sometimes impatiently.
“I’m not happy to play a game every five,” he said. “Obviously, you want to play every night.”
Jeffrey has appeared in one of the Penguins’ last 10 games, but he finally got the opportunity he’s been waiting for against the Florida Panthers Friday night.
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For a brief moment in the second, it seemed like it might be one of those games where one team dominates the action, but comes out on the short end.
Midway through the period, Florida took a 1-0 lead on a Mike Weaver goal despite getting widely outshot. But two minutes later, Chris Kunitz scored and the Pens were no worse for ware.
After James Neal threw the puck into Florida’s crease, Markstrom covered the puck and Kunitz poked it out and through to the back of the net for his seventh goal of the season.
“It’s nice to bang one in and get rewarded for being around the net, but we need more of those. We shoot a lot from outside and he’s going to see a lot of them. If we can get the second chance rebounds it’s going to turn the defense around and if you don’t actually bat it in it might go to an area where another guy has the chance to put it in.”
Bylsma said he thought Kunitz’s goal was instrumental to the game’s outcome.
“We needed to get bodies in front of this guy and get in the net front,” Bylsma said. “I’m not sure we win tonight if we don’t get a goal like that. It was a hard play in the dirty areas, he walks home the puck before they guy can cover it up and it was a big goal.”
The tally came while the Pens were on the man advantage, but several other Pittsburgh possessions could’ve been mistaken for power plays. For long stretches, Florida struggled to advance the puck past mid-ice.
Starting at about four minutes into the period, the Pens held the puck for over two minutes in Florida’s zone, firing four shots at Markstrom. Pittsburgh was able to make a few line changes without surrendering possession. A few electric slap shots and wicked wristers failed to get by Florida’s 23-year-old goalie, who flashed the glove on the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Neal a few times during his first start of the season. But the Pens dominated the score sheet, on everything but the actual score, after the second, outshooting the Panthers 27-13.
Pittsburgh owned the defensive zone in the first period, as it gave up just three shots – the lowest total given up in a period this season. The security at Fort Knox couldn’t have done a better job of protecting the Penguins’ defensive zone.
The Pens seemingly built a brick wall along their blue line, making it excruciatingly difficult for Florida to enter the zone without having to dump and chase, just to turn the puck back over to Pittsburgh who continuously took it the other way.
“We didn’t give them as many chances with turnovers, trying to make fancy plays. A little more of a blue collar effort tonight,” Niskanen said. “We worked the D and controlled the puck in the offensive zone and that’s what our game plan is night in and night out. We executed it tonight and got rewarded for it.”
It wasn’t any easier for Florida once they actually got control in the Pens zone. The Pittsburgh defensemen put their bodies to good use, blocking five first-period shots.
In addition, Sidney Crosby, Malkin and the rest of Pittsburgh’s forwards made life difficult for Florida while on offense, employing picturesque fore-checks that forced a few Panthers turnovers.
Beau Bennett got the chance to play alongside two of the league’s top offensive performers in Malkin and Neal after spending most of his time on the third line with Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy.
“Obviously that’s a pretty strong line to be playing with, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal," Bylsma said. "He was winning battles, playing harder in defensive zone situations."
Bennett seemed to revolve around the net and was in position for a scoring chance that came with a juicy rebound that came off a Neal shot about seven minutes into the game. Bennett tried to wrap the puck around the right post, but sailed it through the crease.
But his most impressive play came a few minutes into the second when Bennett received a pass at the blue line and rode Tyson Strachan all the way along the boards and to right into the Florida crease. The play didn’t result in a Pittsburgh tally, but it showcased Bennett’s ability to outmuscle an opposing player and create his own chance.
“I saw the one nice rush play he had. He used his body, went to the net hard there and he’s an offensive player,” Bylsma said. “He can make plays. He’s got soft hand and what he’s shown in the past three months is that he can play in those areas and win puck battles.”
Author: Wes Crosby