The Penguins and the Senators battled hard through 65 minutes of hockey and a shootout on Sunday at Scotiabank Place. But Pittsburgh gutted out a solid effort on the road and ultimately came away with the two points as James Neal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin all scored in the shootout to help their team to a 2-1 win.
Entering the game, the Penguins said they needed to minimize the mistakes and sloppy play that had lost them two straight games to Toronto and Winnipeg. And while there were times against Ottawa where the Penguins didn’t manage the puck well enough, their overall effort and execution was vastly improved.
“The team played great,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “A big reason we only gave up one goal was the way we played. Everybody was careful defensively and making the right decisions. We didn’t get as many scoring chances as we did, but we didn’t give up as much. I think it was a good team effort.”
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen went awkwardly into the boards on a hit from Milan Michalek late in the first period and sustained a lower-body injury. He did not return to the game and will be reevaluated Monday in Pittsburgh per head coach Dan Bylsma, meaning the Penguins had to rotate five blueliners during the second and third periods.
Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang shouldered the brunt of the workload, leading all skaters in minutes played. Martin skated 30:26 minutes, Letang played 29:10 minutes and Orpik logged 28:28 minutes of ice time (while finishing with nine blocked shots).
Those three, along with Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy, adjusted seamlessly after Niskanen went down and played solid and simple as a defensive unit, holding the Senators and their potent offense – including Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and last year’s Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson – to just one goal.
“This is a Senators team that scored 26 or 28 goals against us in four games last year,” Lovejoy said. “We wanted to make a conscious effort against that team to limit scoring chances and limit goals against, something that we struggled with the first four games of the year and especially last season against the Senators. That was a good win. We did give up some chances and Marc-Andre was great back there.”
“When Nisky went down, those guys are going to log a lot of minutes,” Neal said. “They did a great job of defending Michalek and Spezza and with Karlsson jumping into the rush all the time. They’re a good, fast, quick team and they’re tough to defend. The D did a great job.”
Bylsma specifically pointed out Martin's and Orpik’s performances, and also credited the forwards for realizing the situation the team was in and responding accordingly.
“Going down to five that early, guys had to really step up,” Bylsma said. “In particular, Brooks and Paul Martin had an outstanding game. Brooks is going to end up with close to 10 blocked shots. Playing those guys on the rush, playing Spezza and Jakob Silfverberg and that team, he was outstanding. They did a great job. I thought our team did a pretty good job of realizing we were in that position and had to play on the defensive side a little bit more and play in the offensive zone to minimize the impact on our D.”
While Pittsburgh’s defensemen turned in an excellent effort, so did Fleury. He was locked in from the drop of the puck and made 31 saves in the victory, coming up big late in the game when the Senators were pressing hard for the lead.
“I think Marc-Andre Fleury was real strong,” Bylsma said. “He played as solid and as square as we’ve seen him and he did a real good job in there.”
Neal scored his fourth goal in five games to open the game’s scoring in the first period. The play started when Evgeni Malkin got the puck and streaked up the left side of the ice.
Once Eric Tangradi, out for a shift with Malkin and Neal, saw that Malkin had the puck, he immediately drove straight to the net to establish a presence there in front of Anderson and help distract the Senators defenders. That allowed Malkin to slide a pass through the crease over to Neal, who got down on one knee to one-time it past Anderson.
Overall, Neal was impressive in this game. He was strong in the offensive zone, using his big body to protect the puck and keep it moving. So much attention is placed on his ability to score goals, and rightly so. But Neal is also responsible defensively and that was no different in this game, as he skated hard on the backcheck and covered his assignments.
“Tonight, he did an outstanding job,” Bylsma said. “He’s dangerous all over the ice.”
The Penguins didn’t capitalize on any of their five power-play opportunities (with three of them coming in the first period). However, they killed off both of the Senators' power plays and even got a shorthanded breakaway from Matt Cooke.
Joe Vitale was the only Penguin who did not record at least one shot on goal. Brandon Sutter finished 9-4 (69 percent) in the faceoff dot.