After watching their veteran leader Brooks Orpik get carried off the ice on a stretcher in the first period of Saturday’s game against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden (full update on what happened here
), the Pens still had to play the rest of a hockey game. And it wasn’t easy.
“I think it took a little wind out of our sails,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Everyone was kind of worried. It’s hard to think about hockey when you see someone get hurt like that, especially a teammate and friend. We heard that he’s okay, doing pretty good. But it was definitely tough.”
What made the night even tougher was the way the Pens lost the game.
After building a 2-1 lead of a pair of power-play goals in the first period, they were able to hold it until the final 1:29 of play – where the Bruins scored twice, with David Krejci starting the rally after the Bruins pulled goalie Tuukka Rask for the extra attacker and captain Zdeno Chara getting the winner with exactly 13 seconds left, to come away with a 3-2 victory.
“We spent a little more time in our end than we wanted to at the end, but we still got to find a way to close that out," center Brandon Sutter said. "That’s just one of those games on the road against a good team that you’ve got to win. When you’re up by a goal late like that, you’ve got to find a way to close it out.
"We had chances to score, but we didn’t get them in. It sucks, for sure, but we thought we played really well for 55, 56 minutes, so take some positives out of it at least.”
It was an incredibly emotionally taxing evening, losing Orpik and then losing a game the Pens felt they should have won. But despite all of that, the Pens played the Bruins tough despite all of the injuries they have been dealing with – including one to superstar center Evgeni Malkin, who missed his second consecutive game with a lower-body injury that has the NHL’s second-leading scorer listed as day-to-day.
The Pens are going to have to use that to try and regroup from this one.
“Obviously it’s a tough way to lose, but we can say we played a hard game and played well," Sutter said. "Top to bottom, I didn’t think there were any weaknesses in our game. There’s nothing we did wrong. At the end there, they got a couple bounces in front of the net and they get a couple goals. We just got take that effort and try to keep it going. It’s a tough way to lose, but there’s positives to take from it.”
Chris Kunitz and James Neal scored Pittsburgh’s goals in the first period while Reilly Smith got on the board for Boston. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 18 of 21 shots while Rask made 28 saves for Boston. FOCUSED IN FIRST
It was an emotional first period between two teams who each lost a star player to injury – Bruins forward Loui Eriksson went to the locker room 14 seconds in after being hit by Orpik, which started all of this; and Orpik left 11:06 minutes in. But the Pens were able to stay focused and come up with two big power-play goals amidst all the chaos.
The first was scored 49 seconds into Thornton’s first penalty for roughing. Matt Niskanen, who had moved up to the top power-play unit with Malkin out, hit Crosby with a pass. The captain carried into the Bruins zone and pulled up just inside the blue line, looking for an outlet and finding Kunitz going to the net on the left side.
Kunitz’s shot deflected off Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and through Rask to extend his point streak to seven games, equaling the longest stretch of his career. The red-hot Kunitz has six goals and four assists for 10 points over that span. Overall, he has a team-leading 17 goals through 31 games this season.
Neal was assessed a kneeing penalty at the same time Thornton was given his five-minute match penalty, so the teams were even during those first two minutes. But as soon as Neal stepped out of the box, he received a home-run pass from Niskanen to put him behind the D and on a breakaway. He whipped it past Rask for his 10th goal of the season and now has at least one point in nine of his last 10 games. ABSORBING MINUTES
As the Pens had already been without defensemen Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi for weeks now, losing a third top-four guy in Orpik could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. He is the Penguins’ best shutdown defender, an anchor of the top pairing and an integral part of the penalty kill. But the Pens defensemen have done a tremendous job of seamlessly stepping up all year through potentially devastating injuries, and Saturday was no different for the five defensemen who remained in this game.
Kris Letang absorbed the most minutes after Orpik left for the hospital, finishing with a game-high 31:18 minutes. A lot of those came on special teams, as he played 7:19 on the power play and 4:12 on the penalty kill.
Niskanen also played a ton of power-play minutes. He was inserted onto the top unit Thursday with Malkin out and played there again Saturday. And Niskanen excelled, as he helped set up both Penguins man-advantage goals. His pass to Neal was especially notable with the patience he displayed to wait until the winger was released from the box before putting it perfectly on his blade. Overall, Niskanen logged 25:44 minutes in the game.
Niskanen stepped into a bigger role on the power play, having been a part of the second unit with all the guys healthy. But Deryk Engelland stepped into a role he virtually never does on Saturday by seeing time on the man-advantage. Engelland is a decent penalty killer, but his game isn’t necessarily conducive to power-play situations. But the Pens needed him to play there Saturday, and he did an admirable job manning the point by keeping it nice and simple.
The Pens’ two young D-men – 19-year-old Olli Maatta (2012 first-round draft pick) and 22-year-old Simon Despres (2009 first-round draft pick) played calm and composed in a physically and emotionally arduous game. Maatta played a season-high 22:51 and was on the second power-play unit, and both players contributed shorthanded minutes.