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Aftermath: Playoff Bound

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
  
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QUICK ANALYSIS
 
The Penguins were in a precarious position in mid-February. Pittsburgh was in the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference standings when the team tapped Dan Bylsma as interim head coach on Feb. 15. From the moment he arrived, Bylsma said his goal was to get the team into the playoffs by playing his brand of hockey. Pittsburgh absorbed their coach’s personality and bought into his system. The result? A 16-3-4 run, culminating with a postseason berth following a 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Mission accomplished.

It was a crazy game against the Lightning with a lot of unexpected turns but at the end of the day, Pittsburgh got the win, got the two points and locked up a playoff spot. Pittsburgh accomplished one of the greatest turnarounds in franchise history and should be proud. Many had left the team for dead in February, but less than two months later Pittsburgh looks like a team to be reckoned with come playoff time. Getting into the playoffs was the team’s first goal, but they aren’t satisfied just being there.

With the postseason assured, the Penguins will now concentrate on their playoff position, finishing the season strong, maintaining their moment and making some noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
 
WHAT HAPPENED
 
(AP) -The Pittsburgh Penguins looked like a playoff team for the first two periods. That wasn't the case during the third. Sidney Crosby scored twice in a 1-minute, 4-second span midway through second period to help the Penguins clinch a playoff berth with a 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.
 
PLAYOFF CHASE
 
 
Pos. Team GP Record Pts
4. *Philadelphia 79 43-25-11 97
5. *Carolina 80 45-28-7 97
6. *Pittsburgh 80 43-28-9 95
7. Montreal 80 41-29-10 92
8. NY Rangers 80 41-30-9 91
9. Florida 80 39-30-11 89
10. Buffalo 79 38-32-9 85

                     
Remaining Schedules:
Buffalo: (3) - @ Toronto (Wed); @ Carolina (Thur); Boston (Sat)
*Carolina: (2) - Buffalo (Thur); New Jersey (Sat);
Florida: (2) - @ Atlanta (Thur); Washington (Sat)
Montreal: (2) - @ Boston (Thur); Pittsburgh (Sat)
NY Rangers: (2) - Philadelphia (Thur); @ Philadelphia (Sun)
*Philadelphia: (3) - @ NY Rangers (Thur); @ NY Islanders (Sat); Ny Rangers (Sun)

* - clinched playoff berth
 
SHOT OF THE NIGHT

Eric Godard defended his teammate Max Talbot by fighting David Koci (photo by Getty)
ESSENTIALS
 
What Worked Well: Team Character
The game against the Lightning got pretty ugly at times with a few fights and skirmishes. Players were taking liberties and the Lightning took a few cheap shots on the Penguins. But Pittsburgh united and responded. Most notably Eric Godard and Bill Guerin dropped the gloves (see intriguing notables). But the Penguins all stuck together and weren’t intimidated.

What Could Have Gone Better: Burying the Lightning
The Penguins jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the third period and looked like they would cruise to an easy victory. Tampa Bay had other plans, scoring three goals 5:12 minutes apart to claw back into the game at 4-3. Though the game became a little more entertaining than I’m sure they would have liked, the Penguins settled down and responded by making the necessary plays – which included two more scores – to capture the victory and lock up the playoffs.
 
DIFFERENCE MAKER
 
With a playoff berth on the line, Sidney Crosby refused to let the opportunity fade away. Crosby scored two phenomenal power-play goals 1:04 apart to help the Penguins run out to a 4-0 lead. He relentlessly pursued the puck and stepped up big when his team needed him the most. Crosby buried a one-timer on the near side for his first score. He tallied his second with a great breakaway move.

HONORABLE MENTION: Jordan Staal scored a goal and added two assists for a three-point night. He also finished with a game-best plus-3 rating. Staal made a beautiful pass to setup the game’s first goal and then finished off the Lightning with an empty-net score. He also saw 19:43 minutes of ice time - second highest for a forward on the Penguins, behind only Crosby (20:05).
 
SCORING SYNOPSIS
 
Jordan Staal made a beautiful one-timer pass to Ruslan Fedotenko, who netted the game’s opening goal. Tyler Kennedy had the puck behind the Lightning net. In tic-tac-toe fashion, Kennedy fed Staal below the near circle. Staal immediately moved the puck Fedotenko coming down the slot. The Ukraine native took the puck on his forehand, switched to the backhand and threw the puck into the short side of the net. Pittsburgh 1, Tampa Bay 0.

Sidney Crosby netted his 100th point of the season with a rocket shot on a five-on-three advantage. Sergei Gonchar laid into a slap shot from the midpoint that hit Chris Kunitz in the slot. The rebound went to Malkin and Lightning goaltender Karri Ramo committed to a Malkin shot. But Malkin threw a cross-ice pass to Crosby in the near circle and the Penguins captain buried the one-timer. Malkin’s assist was the 300th point of his career. Pittsburgh 2, Tampa Bay 0.

With the puck deep in the Penguins zone, the Lightning pinched while killing a penalty and Crosby made them pay with another power-play goal 1:04 after the previous. The play was started by Gonchar behind his own net. He threw the puck to Malkin at the near wall. Malkin sent a long pass to Kunitz, who was stationed right at the Tampa Bay blue line. Forward Paul Szczechura, assuming a defensive position because of defenseman Matt Lashoff pinched into the Pittsburgh zone, was lost in the neutral zone and Crosby sneaked behind him. Kunitz hit Crosby coming down the seam for a breakaway. Crosby juked before throwing a wrist shot blocker side past Ramo. Pittsburgh 3, Tampa Bay 0.

Another great pass from Staal got the Penguins their fourth goal of the game. Staal collected the puck off the backboards and threw a blind, backhand pass from the near goal line to Matt Cooke, atop the crease. Cooke slammed in the puck while absorbing a stick to the face. Pittsburgh 4, Tampa Bay 0.

Tampa Bay got on the board with a shorthanded tally by Jeff Halpern. Paul Szczechura dumped the puck behind the Pittsburgh net and then retrieved it. He passed the puck to Halpern at the side of the net. Halpern scored the shot far side. Pittsburgh 4, Tampa Bay 1.

Tampa Bay got on the board again with a great give-and-go play by rookie Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. The two players had a two-on-one advantage entering the Penguins zone. St. Louis passed to Stamkos, passed to St. Louis, who deposited the puck into the goal. Pittsburgh 4, Tampa Bay 2.

Tampa Bay made the Penguins sweat a little after netting its third goal to make it a one-score game. An innocent shot went on net from the far blue line. Marc-Andre Fleury made the save. Matt Pettinger pushed Rob Scuderi into Fleury, knocking the netminder off balance. Szczechura took advantage by collecting the rebound and scoring a goal. Pittsburgh 4, Tampa Bay 3.

The Penguins reasserted themselves on Petr Sykora’s 300th career goal. Former Penguin Noah Welch had the puck at the Penguins near blue line when he fell to the ice. Sykora picked up the puck and hit a streaking Fedotenko for a breakaway. Fedotenko took a shot on net and Ramo pushed out the rebound. Sykora went backhand-forehand and slid the puck across the goal line. Pittsburgh 5, Tampa Bay 3.

The Lightning continued to pester with a goal with 40.6 seconds left in the third period to make it a one-goal game. Tampa Bay took control of a faceoff in the Penguins zone. The puck bounced to Martins Karsums in the slot. Fleury made a save on Karsums but Halpern found the rebound and netted the puck. Pittsburgh 5, Tampa Bay 4.

Staal started the game’s scoring with a great pass, and he ended the game’s scoring with an empty-net tally. Stamkos couldn’t handle a pass on his backhand along the boards at the far blue line in the Penguins zone. The puck bounced over Stamkos’ stick. Staal outraced him to the puck, used his body to shield the puck and then tapped the puck into the goal. Pittsburgh 6, Tampa Bay 4.
 
INTRIGUING NOTABLES
 
There was a huge discrepancy between these two teams’ five-on-three opportunities. Tampa Bay had two such advantages and had nothing to show for it. The Lightning played along the perimeter and never moved the puck into the heart of the slot. The Penguins scored on one of its two five-on-threes. They worked the puck through the middle of the ice (Crosby’s goal came from Malkin right through the slot) and Pittsburgh wasn’t afraid to go through the Lightning’s penalty kill unit. The Penguins had the better opportunities and were rewarded with a goal.

Talk about knowing your role. Eric Godard has stepped up for the Penguins all season and did it again against Tampa. David Koci threw a big hit into Max Talbot in the Penguins zone. Koci then put Talbot in a headlock. Talbot escaped and skated up ice. Koci, who has a seven-inch, 48-pound advantage over Talbot, cross checked the Penguins forward in the back. A skirmish ensued and Godard immediately dropped his gloves and grabbed Koci’s jersey, forcing the big man into a fight. It was a heavyweight battle that ended in a duel but Godard really stepped up for his teammates once again.

Smart time out by interim head coach Dan Bylsma after Tampa Bay made it a 4-3 game. He settled the troops and the team responded. He got their attention.

Speaking of stepping up for a teammate, great stuff from Bill Guerin. Sergei Gonchar was battling in the far corner of the Penguins zone with Martin St. Louis when Evgeny Artyukhin, the third-man in, threw a cross check into the back of Gonchar. Guerin immediately went after Artyukhin and the two sparred.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had 21 shots in the third period.

Former Penguins Ryan Malone broke his right hand and will miss the rest of the season.
 
GAME NOTES
 
> Pittsburgh improved its record to 43-28-9 on the year with a 19-15-6 mark on the road. The Penguins are 14-2-3 in their last 19 games.

> Pittsburgh clinched its third consecutive postseason berth.

> Pittsburgh is 16-3-4 since Dan Bylsma was named interim head coach.

> Scoring Summary:
PIT, R.Fedotenko (16), 5:00 2nd period: Penguins 1, Lightning 0
PIT, S.Crosby PP (31), 10:08 2nd period: Penguins 2, Lightning 0
PIT, S.Crosby PP (32), 11:12 2nd period: Penguins 3, Lightning 0
PIT, M.Cooke (12), 1:08 3rd period: Penguins 4, Lightning 0
TB, J.Halpern SH (6), 4:31 3rd period: Penguins 4, Lightning 1
TB, M.St. Louis (30), 8:59 3rd period: Penguins 4, Lightning 2
TB, P.Szczechura (4), 9:43 3rd period: Penguins 4, Lightning 3
PIT, P.Sykora (25), 11:43 3rd period: Penguins 5, Lightning 3
TB, J.Halpern (7), 19:19 3rd period: Penguins 5, Lightning 4
PIT, J.Staal (22), 19:47 3rd period: Penguins 6, Lightning 4

> Evgeni Malkin notched two assists to increase his NHL lead in points to 110 (34G-76A). Malkin’s 110 points sets a new career high (previously 106) and his 76 assists are a league-best and a new career high.

> Malkin has tallied 30-plus goals (34) in three straight seasons and has broken the 100-point barrier (110) for the second consecutive season.

> Malkin’s first assist was the 300th point of his career.

> Sidney Crosby scored two power-play goals in the contest. He is third in the league in scoring with 101 points (32G-69A) and his 69 assists are second most in the league behind teammate Malkin’s 76.

> Crosby broke the 100-point barrier for the third time in his four seasons. He also hit the 30-goal mark for third time of his career. The only time he didn’t reach those marks was last season when he missed 28 games due to a high ankle sprain.

> The Penguins boast two players with 100 or more points in one season in Malkin (110) and Crosby (101). It’s the seventh time in franchise history that more than one player has netted 100-plus points in the same season. The most recent occurrence was in 1995-96 when Mario Lemieux (161), Jaromir Jagr (149) and Ron Francis (119) accomplished the feat.

> Marc-Andre Fleury made 33 saves in the game to record his 34th win of the season, sixth most in the league. He is 13-2-3 in his last 18 games.

> Jordan Staal scored a goal and two assists for a three-point game. He has six points (2G-4A) and plus-7 rating in his last three games. Staal also had a game-high plus-3 rating.

> Petr Sykora tallied his 300th career goal and 10th game-winning tally of the season.

> Chris Kunitz recorded two assists and has 18 points in 18 games with the Penguins.

> Ruslan Fedotenko notched a goal and an assist. He has two goals and six assists (8 points) in his last five games.

> Tyler Kennedy notched an assist for his fourth point (1G-3A) in three games.

> Matt Cooke scored a goal for his 30th point of the season. It the fourth time in his career that he’s hit the 30-point mark.

> Kris Letang posted an assist. He has 13 points (4G-9A) in his past 17 contests.
 
THREE STARS
 1. S.Crosby, Pit
2. J.Staal, Pit
3. J.Halpern, TB

 



Author: Sam Kasan

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