The Pens had a lot of players missing in Monday’s game against the Blue Jackets, but it was the one who returned that made all the difference.
Evgeni Malkin, back in the lineup after missing Pittsburgh’s previous two games with a lower-body injury, broke a scoreless tie 4:16 minutes into the second period and led the Penguins to a 2-1 win at CONSOL Energy Center.
It was a classic ‘Geno’ goal, as the superstar center received a pass in stride from Jussi Jokinen, blew past defenseman Fedor Tyutin, cut to the net and tucked a shot around Curtis McElhinney – Columbus’ starting goalie with Sergei Bobrovsky currently sidelined with a groin injury.
The Pens’ other superstar center Sidney Crosby followed that up with a goal that certainly wasn’t as pretty, as a centering pass from Pascal Dupuis deflected off the captain’s knee and past McElhinney as he drove to the net. But he’ll take a game-winner no matter how it’s scored.
The two-headed monster stepped up to lead a depleted forward group that was without James Neal after he was handed a five-game suspension on Monday from his knee to the head of Bruins forward Brad Marchand on Saturday. It’s a big loss for the Pens and for Malkin in particular, as he credited Neal – who had 10 goals in 16 games after returning from an injury – for his resurgence this November after the winger rejoined the lineup. But the positive is that Malkin still produced a big effort in tonight’s game despite missing his complementary linemate.
“They are good together. Both really good players and when they don't have each other, they are capable of making plays too,” Crosby said. “We like seeing them together, but until then, to have 'Geno' get one in his first game back, I bet it feels good.”
At the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury made 32 saves to anchor a depleted defense missing three of its top-four defensemen, and as a group they kept a charging Columbus off the board for 59 of the game’s 60 minutes. Though the Pens weren’t pleased they allowed the Blue Jackets to get back in the game so late, responding with a win after an emotional, taxing loss in Boston on Saturday is big.
“Nobody panicked no matter what the score was and we stuck to our gameplan,” Fleury said. “Got some chances and scored, it was good. The guys have been playing good defensively, that helps me out a lot.”
FLEURY ROBBED TWICE
Marc-Andre Fleury makes a living out of keeping pucks out of his net, but just once he'd like to turn the tables and score a goal of his own. Those who are familiar with Fleury know how badly he wants to score his first, and that he usually doesn't shy away from an opportunity to go for it when appropriate.
But on the play he almost scored on Monday, surprisingly enough coach Dan Bylsma said his goaltender wasn’t necessarily going for the goal.
“We have talked a lot about this in the past couple years with Marc and when the appropriate time is to attempt that,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Given the situation and how he stopped the puck, how it came off the wall, he didn't have a play anywhere else but up the middle of the ice at that point in time. Guys behind him, guys to his left so he didn't have good options. To go up the middle was his best play. I don't think he totally had in mind that when the puck went back there and he did stop it that, 'Hey, I'm going to try to shoot it at the net.' Read that situation and went up the middle of the ice and actually was the best choice to get the puck out of the zone.”
Intentional or not, Fleury came within inches of finally accomplishing the goal – both literally and figuratively – that’s eluded him for years. But despite his best effort, Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin robbed the Penguins netminder by just barely getting his stick on the puck at center ice to deflect it just wide of the net.
"I was trying to will it in. Will it to curve," Crosby laughed, who's watched Fleury's attempts to break into the goal column over the seasons. "But it didn't, it just kind of drifted. But it would have been awesome.”
In an even crueler twist of fate, Nikitin went back to retrieve the puck and fired it up the ice. The Jackets gained the zone and Mark Letestu sent a pass from the corner to a wide-open Matt Calvert in front, who one-timed it quickly into the net before Fleury had a chance to react – breaking his shutout bid with just 56.5 seconds left.
“Oh, jeez. It was close,” Fleury said of the almost-goal. “One day, one day, it's going to go. I knew I had some time from the rebound from the boards. I just tried to get it out there quickly as possible. I was hoping off the carom at the end, but it didn't happen.
“I took a deep breath (after losing the shutout). There was no reason to panic and everything went well. Main thing is we got the win, got the points and that is what matters.”
With Brooks Orpik (concussion) joining Paul Martin (fractured tibia) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) on injured reserve after what happened in Pittsburgh’s last game on Saturday in Boston, the Pens played Monday’s game without three of their top-four defensemen.
However, the fourth remaining one, Kris Letang, said this morning he wanted to step up and lead by example with those important players out. And he did that against the Blue Jackets, producing a stellar performance in the Pens’ victory and skating a game-high 26:44 minutes.
The Pens' other experienced NHLers in Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland handled a bigger workload with aplomb, while the younger guys – rookie Olli Maatta and sophomores Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo – played well beyond their years. As a group, the defensemen played terrific in a tough game, as Columbus had a lot more jump than the Pens right from the start. They were winning all the faceoffs, which gave them possession and allowed them to gain the zone. When they got there, they kept the Pens hemmed in with active, pinching D and forwards in perfect position. But the Pens’ D did their job and kept the Jackets from scoring.
The Pens played a much more energetic second, but the Jackets' tempo didn't diminish. They again went to the hard areas and made it tough on the defensemen, but they cleared the net and kept the Jackets from getting on the board once again. The battle continued in the third, but the blueliners proved up to the challenge for a third straight stanza.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Bylsma said. “They played hard and fought. They came at us and brought pucks to the net, did a good job. Our defense was tested as a result, tested going back. Simon (Despres), Kris and Olli Maatta had to go back and play under some tough conditions.”
Author: Michelle Crechiolo