The Penguins got their 10th straight win on Tuesday buoyed by what the players and coach Dan Bylsma called the loudest crowd they’ve experienced at CONSOL Energy Center this season, and perhaps ever.
Pittsburgh got a wild 2-1 win over the Capitals, with defenseman Matt Niskanen scoring the game-winning goal late in the third period just nine seconds after the Penguins killed off a four-minute Washington power play and had the fans roaring.
“It’s obviously an important time in the game and I thought the penalty kill did an amazing job of stepping up to the challenge," Niskanen said. "We created a lot of energy and momentum from that. You could feel the crowd getting into it and we were able to go on a rush there and finish. Good teamwork.”
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was named the game’s No. 1 star after coming up with all the big saves all evening, but especially during that lengthy power play and the remaining minutes of the third with the Penguins holding a one-goal lead.
“Really solid in his net,” Bylsma said of his netminder. “He was challenged a few times with some flurries. He was strong. Had a couple tough saves. When things were frantic around the net, he was solid, strong. He was his best on the penalty kill for us. Couple shots from weak side. One from the middle he had to come up big on. It was a big part of that kill.”
The Penguins have seemingly won in every way possible during their 10-game streak, becoming the first team in NHL history to have 10-game winning streaks in three consecutive seasons. Tonight was a perfect example of that, with the match being decided in that crazy few-minute sequence. They're not trying to overthink anything as they keep rolling; just take it one game at a time.
“The importance is probably greater just because of a shortened season," said captain Sidney Crosby, who assisted on both goals to bring his NHL-leading point total to 50. "I think the good thing for us is that we’re playing so many games and I don’t think anyone’s thinking a whole lot about it. We’re just going out there and playing the way we need to. We’re obviously missing big parts of our hockey team, so we’re keeping it simple and trying to find ways to have success and hopefully wait for these guys to get back.”
But that doesn't mean they're ready to stop.
“Obviously, we’re not satisfied with 10," Pascal Dupuis said. "We want more. We have to take them one by one.”
With the score tied 1-1 and 12:11 left in the period, Matt Cooke got called for boarding and unsportsmanlike conduct. That meant Washington’s power play – which entered the game ranked No. 3 in the NHL and had already converted an earlier opportunity – was going to get four minutes on the man-advantage.
Not the ideal situation for Pittsburgh. But the Penguins dug deep and came up with the penalty kills of their careers, led by a herculean performance by Fleury and bolstered by the fans.
The Penguins rotated their penalty killers quickly throughout the four minutes. All three defense pairs saw time and forwards Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Sidney Crosby, Tanner Glass and Brandon Sutter, among others, went out for short, hard shifts. They battled hard and fought for the big clears, with Fleury producing heroic saves against the Capitals – namely Alex Ovechkin, who scored Washington’s first goal.
"They have good players all around," Fleury said of how he strategized their power play. "You have to respect them, too. But in the back of your mind, you know he’s back there waiting for the big one-timer."
Killing off four shorthanded minutes in the third period of a tie game is big enough, and it felt like a playoff atmosphere here in CONSOL Energy Center with the 18,653 in attendance on their feet and roaring every time the Penguins cleared.
"In the third with the two minor penalties was a huge point in the game," Bylsma said. "(Capitals have) a very dangerous power play and we had 15 guys step up on the penalty kill. Forwards and D doing a great job, blocking shots, ‘Flower’ was tremendous in that sequence. The fans were tremendous in that sequence. They were as loud as they’ve been. You felt the momentum at the end of that kill as the puck was going down the ice, the loudest the building's been. You felt somehow that was going to end in a goal."
“They were more excited for the PK than my goal, I think," Niskanen joked. "That’s okay.”
That's debatable, as his winner seconds later made the fans lose their minds.
As Cooke got out of the box and sprinted to the other side of the rink, Niskanen got the puck to Crosby, who carried the puck out of the zone. The three of them skated up to create an odd-man rush. Crosby passed it over to Cooke and drove to the net. Cooke slid a pass across and back to Niskanen, who picked his spot and beat Holtby to put the Penguins up 2-1.
“They still had possession as the penalty was expiring and I was able to pick off a pass in front of the crease," Niskanen explained. "I saw Sid was off to the races and we’re able to get a 3-on-2 the other way, so just followed it up and Cookie made a nice pass. I kind of have an idea where I want to go before I get it. Just kind of corral it and see the opening and let it rip.”
“The timing was perfect with when Cookie came out of the box," Crosby added. "I think their power play was a bit tired too at the end of their shift. So, it worked out pretty well, but you could see our kill as it kept going, we just seemed to get more and more momentum. The building was pretty loud and I thought that we fed off of that, so that’s a big play in the game.”
POWER PLAY STRIKES
With both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang out for Tuesday’s game, Crosby said before the game that they would have to keep it simple on the power play, play to the strengths of all the guys on the ice and just overall be better in that area than they were last game.
Well, Pittsburgh’s power play couldn’t convert its first chance in the first period, but stepped up with a big tying goal with just four seconds left on its second opportunity in the second period.
The Penguins were in the midst of a change, with players from both the first and second units on the ice. Beau Bennett couldn’t corral a puck in front of the net, but Crosby grabbed it and quickly slid it back to Martin at the center point. He wound up and sailed a shot past Holtby with Brandon Sutter providing net-front presence on the play.
The Penguins played Tuesday without star defenseman Kris Letang, who missed the contest with a lower-body injury suffered in the previous game against Boston. With Letang out, the pairings looked like this:
Brooks Orpik – Paul Martin
Mark Eaton – Matt Niskanen
Simon Despres – Deryk Engelland
Pittsburgh’s defensemen played unreal despite missing their top blueliner. Of course, they produced all the team’s offense, scoring both the game-tying goal (Martin, his sixth of the season) and game-winning goal (Niskanen, his fourth of the season).
The six of them combined for 13 shots, eight hits and 16 blocked shots. Orpik and Martin were tasked with shutting down Washington’s top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and they played them tough, keeping them off the board even-strength and late in the game with the Penguins holding the lead. Martin skated a game-high 28:14 minutes while Orpik played 25:59 minutes, and they each logged 6:26 shorthanded minutes.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo