This wasn't how Brandon Sutter wanted his return to Carolina to go.
Actually, this wasn't how any of the Penguins wanted this game to go.
Carolina defeated Pittsburgh 4-1 at PNC Arena on Thursday – Sutter and former Penguin Jordan Staal’s first games against their old teams since being traded last June at the 2012 NHL Draft.
Eric Staal (1G-2A) and Jiri Tlusty (2G-1A) each had three-point nights for Carolina. Jeff Skinner also scored and Alex Semin had two assists. Chris Kunitz had the Penguins’ only goal, assisted by Sidney Crosby and Matt Niskanen. Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves while Cam Ward stopped 26.
Jordan Staal led all ‘Canes forwards with 21:27 minutes of ice time. He had two shots, two blocks and went 14-13 on faceoffs (52 percent). Sutter was flying against his former team and finished with 14:49 minutes of ice time, one shot and a pair of takeaways.
Penguins defenseman Paul Martin did not play in the third period with a lower-body injury.
The Penguins entered their three-game trip with the second-best road record in the NHL (8-2). But they haven’t had success on this particular swing, dropping the first two games.
What’s especially disappointing about tonight is that the Penguins didn’t respond after a frustrating effort in Florida on Tuesday, where they dropped a 6-4 decision to the Panthers. The Penguins have been outworked by their opponents in both losses, plain and simple. Especially in their own zone. And they know that.
“The last couple games, I don’t think it’s been too good,” Crosby said following the game. “For whatever reason, we’ve been pretty loose in our coverage and made it pretty easy on the two teams we’ve played. I think our focus has got to be on our work ethic and making sure it’s there every night.”
To put it in perspective, the Penguins lead the Atlantic Division and are in second place in the Eastern Conference with 29 points in 21 games. They went on a 5-1 tear in six games before this two-game slide. But the team isn't pleased with the habits and tendencies that have crept into their game the last few days. Yes, they have a roster filled with talent, but they can’t win games on that alone. Not in this league and with its parity.
“We have to realize we can’t show up and win, you know,” Crosby continued. “We’re a good team, but we’re a good team when we work hard as a group. We can’t expect to show up in teams’ buildings on the road, just put our gear on and expect to win. We’re a good team, but we’re better than the last couple games.”
The Penguins have a big opportunity on Saturday against the Eastern Conference-leading Canadiens to rectify their mini slide, and Sutter is looking forward to the challenge.
“We’ve got to do a little better job of helping our goalies out,” he said. “That’s 10 goals against in the first few games of this trip. We’ve got to be a lot better in Montreal if we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The Hurricanes needed just one minute, 54 seconds to score two goals – and come centimeters within scoring a third.
With Pittsburgh holding a 1-0 lead, the ‘Canes had an incredible chance to tie the score with 16:05 left in the second period when Skinner slid a puck through the crease that stopped at the post on the goal line. Niskanen was able to get his blade on it to keep it out until Fleury had a chance to fall back and cover it.
The ‘Canes may have been thwarted on that chance, but they made it up for eight seconds later.
Carolina won the ensuing faceoff and Eric Staal ended up with the puck behind the net. He tried a wraparound shot on Fleury, which he stopped. But Staal kept poking and the puck squirted out to the slot. An untracked Jiri Tlusty popped it in.
One minute and 46 seconds later, the ‘Canes scored on an eerily similar goal. Patrick Dwyer sent a pass from behind the net right to Skinner in front, who was as open as Tlusty was on the previous goal. And he scored as well.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma quickly called for a timeout after Carolina went up 3-1 at that point. The Penguins calmed down after that and played much better hockey.
However, later in the second period, Carolina scored a third goal the exact same way as the previous two to take a 4-1 lead when Alexander Semin circled around the net and centered a pass to Tlusty all alone in front of the crease for a one-timer – and he put it home.
Fleury kept his team in the game during the first period with some sensational stops, but on plays like these he didn’t have a chance. The Penguins were sloppy with their assignments in the defensive zone, and Carolina exploited that by finding the seams in the middle and converting a similar play four times in a row.
"You could throw a blanket over the area they scored four goals from tonight," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
"Tonight we gave up four goals around our net in defensive zone coverage, in the blue paint," Bylsma added. "We know they’re good there. Both Staals bringing it to the net. We weren’t very good in that area and really left our goaltender out to dry.
"I think looking at the plays tonight, it’s the lack of our execution in our defensive zone, our being strong around the net and the awareness of the situation. ... We weren’t on top of it on our assignments."
The Hurricanes just kept throwing the puck to the net no matter where they were in the zone, including from behind the goal line. The Penguins didn’t get nearly enough pucks to the net early on, as they had recorded just 12 shots with around seven minutes left in the second.
TRIO OF POSTS
Cam Ward may want to get his goal posts a thank you card after this game after the Pens hit three posts tonight, two coming at key moments.
Sutter rang one off the post just over two minutes into the third with the score tied 1-1. He picked up a loose puck sitting on the boards by the ‘Canes bench that the Hurricanes couldn’t touch or they’d get called for too many men. He wheeled down the ice and ripped a wrister that clanged off the far post.
Then a few minutes after the Hurricanes went up 4-1, Pascal Dupuis turned and fired a shot from the slot that also clanked off the red painted metal.
Finally, in the waning seconds and with Fleury on the bench for an extra attacker, Kunitz turned and fired a shot that whacked off the crossbar.
Crosby was one of the few Penguins that stood out tonight, making special plays that only the best of the best can even imagine – let alone execute.
Let’s start with his assist on Kunitz’s goal. Crosby threaded a pinpoint pass across the ice through traffic right to the sweet spot of Kunitz’s blade. Kunitz was able to wind up and absolutely tee it off for the score.
Then at the end of the game, Crosby had a point-blank attempt on the backdoor. Though he was thwarted by the pad of Cam Ward, Crosby reached back between his legs to collect his rebound and somehow make a sick pass over to Kunitz.
Crosby also finished the night 21-8 (72 percent) on faceoffs.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo