Even though the Pens found themselves down 4-1 to Maple Leafs just 42 seconds into the second period, they knew they were capable of coming back.
After all, they’d done it before. The Pens clawed back from the exact same deficit against this exact same team the season before last, finishing with a 5-4 shootout win against Toronto on Jan. 31, 2012.
And they did it again on Wednesday at CONSOL Energy Center, finishing with a 6-5 shootout win against the Maple Leafs. It certainly wasn't pretty, but the Pens will take the two points.
Evgeni Malkin had two goals, Kris Letang had a goal and two assists, James Neal had a goal and an assist and recent call-up Chris Conner rounded out the scoring for the Penguins.
“That's not the way we draw it up, but found a way to stick with it,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who scored the game-deciding goal in the shootout. “It was so ugly that it's easy to forget. It was so bad. There is no way to describe it. To get scored on twice in the first shifts of the second, it was a bad feeling. We knew we had a lot of time left and fortunately we stuck with it, drew some power plays and took advantage of them. Give everyone credit for sticking with it because that first 25 minutes is as ugly as it gets, I think.”
The comeback began 8:27 into the middle frame when Malkin beat Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier with a one-timer on the power play. Just over a minute later, it looked like the Pens had cut Toronto’s lead to one on a crazy sequence when another recent call-up in Andrew Ebbett sent a wobbly shot at Bernier from the side of the net, which deflected off his blocker and into the cage as he desperately tried to recover. It was ruled a goal by the referee behind the net, but the call on the ice was overturned after an official review when it was determined that Malkin had high-sticked the puck before it hit Bernier when he came down with his stick over a defender.
But no matter – the Pens got another bounce to actually go their way later when Letang’s shot deflected off Dion Phaneuf for a second power-play goal 15:20 into the period to officially make it 4-3 Leafs.
Toronto then scored what could have been a backbreaker when Tyler Bozak beat Jeff Zatkoff with 19 seconds in the period to give them a 5-3 lead going into the second intermission, but the Pens didn’t let it get them down. If anything, they responded with an incredible third, playing the defense that had been lacking in the first two periods – tying a franchise record by not allowing the Leafs a single shot on goal while scoring twice within the first 7:41 minutes to even the score before going to overtime (Toronto didn’t record a shot there either) and the shootout, where Crosby and Malkin both beat Bernier.
MALKIN KEYS COMEBACK
On a night when the Penguins celebrated their 300th consecutive sellout, many memories of the past six seasons were replayed in the minds of Penguins fans.
For those fans, a new memory of center Evgeni Malkin should be added to the vault after his performance Wednesday night.
Malkin, 27, looked like the dominant force that earned him the Conn Smythe trophy following the 2008-09 playoffs, as he guided the Penguins back from 4-1 deficit with two goals and an assist in addition to the shootout winner as Pittsburgh defeated Toronto, 6-5.
Full story to come.
PP SCORES THREE
The Pens are a team with so much talent that they are never truly out of a game no matter how much they’re down. Put all of that talent together on the ice at one time and a comeback from a big deficit isn’t just possible, but probable.
The Leafs gave them a number of opportunities to do that by taking penalties, and the Pens made them pay dearly for it. The first power-play unit of Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Chris Kunitz scored three huge goals on Wednesday to lead the comeback against Toronto. They finished 3-for-5 on the man-advantage in the game.
Chris Kunitz factored in on both of the second-period power-play goals. He capped off a tremendous shift by drawing an interference penalty on Dion Phaneuf. The Pens lost the faceoff, but Kunitz tracked the puck into the corner and doggedly battled for it, allowing it to pop back to Letang. He faked a shot before distributing to Malkin, who one-timed a beauty past Bernier to make it 4-2. With just under five minutes left in the period and Peter Holland in the box, Kunitz was providing a net-front presence and screening Bernier, blocking him from seeing Letang’s shot deflect off Phaneuf to make it 4-3.
In the third period, Letang first drew a penalty on Jerred Smithson before drawing another one on James van Riemsdyk to give the Pens 54 seconds on the 5-on-3. And when Tyler Bozak lost his stick at the top of Toronto’s triangle, it essentially became a 5-on-2 – just unfair. Malkin stickhandled around him and dished it to Neal, who utilized his sniper’s release to beat Bernier.
“Games like this where you desperately need it, to get those big goals and getting them often when we needed them was important,” Crosby said. “That will definitely build our confidence. It's something we're always trying to make better. Timing is everything, especially for the power play. It was huge there.”
Goaltender Jeff Zatkoff made the first relief appearance of his NHL career, replacing Marc-Andre Fleury less than a minute into the second period after the starter allowed three goals on 11 shots.
It may have been a lot of pressure for the rookie netminder, but he was able to keep them in the game that second period. Then in the third and overtime, his teammates stepped up and helped out their goaltender by keeping Toronto from throwing even one puck Zatkoff's way – but that meant he had to come up with some big saves in the first shootout of his NHL career after not seeing a lot of action for a period of time.
But Zatkoff was able to pull it off, as he stopped both Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson to help the Pens cap their comeback attempt.
“It's a different kind of challenge, not physically but mentally, making sure you're staying in the game and tracking the puck even though you're not getting a lot of shots,” Zatkoff said of his uneventful 25 minutes.