The Penguins return to Pittsburgh having swept their three-game road trip, capping it off by gritting out a physical 3-1 defeat of the Florida Panthers on Saturday at BB&T Center despite losing another star player in Evgeni Malkin (he did not play with an upper-body injury and is day-to-day).
Brenden Morrow scored twice and added an assist on Kris Letang’s opening goal for Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves in the game.
The Penguins are missing key players to injury – Malkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin – but they’ve adjusted well and winning games, and that’s something that’s no surprise to Morrow.
“When you’re in here, you see how confident the group is,” he said. “(Even with) a couple world-class players not in the lineup, the group in here still has a belief that what they’re going to do, how they’re going to work, how they prepare, is going to have success. That’s paying off.”
LIKE THERE’S NO TO-MORROW
It might have been jarring for hockey fans to see Brenden Morrow in black and gold when he joined the Penguins at the trade deadline, as he’d only ever wore green and gold with the Dallas Stars before coming to Pittsburgh. And it took Morrow himself time to adjust to his new team, surroundings and system.
But right now – eight games into his stint with Pittsburgh – he couldn’t look more comfortable in a Penguins uniform. And that’s manifesting in his statistics.
Morrow factored into all three goals, scoring the game-winning goal and an empty-netter on the power play and assisting on Letang’s opening goal to lead the Penguins past the Panthers. He now has six points in his last five games. He’s doing exactly what the Penguins hoped he would do on the ice, which is use his physical strength and power to wreak havoc at the net and in the offensive zone and add a scoring touch.
After allowing three power-play goals on four chances Thursday in Tampa Bay, the Penguins had to go up against an opponent that scored a season-high four power-play goals in their last meeting back in February and whose unit ranks in the NHL’s top 10.
Despite all of that, coach Dan Bylsma said his team’s mindset going into the game had to be about the next situation “regardless of the percentage, last game or earlier in a game.”
They took that to heart, redeeming themselves in the process. Pittsburgh killed off all four Panthers power plays, including two late in the third period while holding a precarious 2-1 lead. Fleury held it down between the pipes as usual, while Brooks Orpik (4:31 shorthanded minutes) and Douglas Murray (4:15) anchored the back end. The Penguins rotated a sizeable group of forwards – including Craig Adams, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale, to name a few – to keep fresh legs up top. They didn’t let the Panthers establish position in the zone, won faceoffs and got a lot of big clears.
“Special teams is always about the next one, regardless of what your statistics are or whatever happened before,” Bylsma said. “Sometimes the toughest thing as a PK is if you give up a couple goals is to not have that confidence and not be aggressive. And tonight we had to kill two there in the third, and I thought our guys stepped over the boards with the mindset we were going to kill these penalties off and they certainly did that.”
The Penguins always say they want to be ‘tough to play against.’ The Panthers experienced that phrase firsthand on Saturday night and will probably be a sore group of guys come Sunday, as the Penguins outhit them by a wide margin and laid several highlight-worthy checks that sent bodies flying.
The Penguins had a 17-7 edge in hits after the first period alone. Overall, Pittsburgh finished with 40 hits to Florida’s 25. That constant physicality helped wear the Panthers down and keep them on their toes.
“Obviously we’re better when we’re on the body,” said Adams, who tied Vitale for the team lead with five hits. “We’ve got quite a few guys now that like to get on the body, so I thought we were physical and I thought it was a factor in the game.”
Crosby has been out with a broken jaw, and on Saturday Malkin sat out with an upper-body injury. With Pittsburgh missing its two superstar centers, Bylsma had some adjusting to do.
The biggest change was moving versatile winger Dupuis to center between Morrow and Bennett. Vitale rejoined the lineup after being scratched five of the previous six games and centered the fourth line between Tanner Glass and Adams. Jokinen centered Chris Kunitz and Jarome Iginla and the Cooke, Sutter and Tyler Kennedy line remained intact.
Vitale produced a big performance, tying for the team lead in hits, going 13-4 in faceoffs (76 percent) and contributing on the penalty kill, which played a big part in the win. He also got an assist on Pittsburgh’s first goal by forechecking hard and forcing a turnover.
UPDATE: Bylsma said after the game “Evgeni is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Reaggravated and just dealing with a nagging injury. Wasn’t able to go tonight because of that.”
BIG NIGHT FOR BEAU
Bennett got called up to Pittsburgh in mid-February and the rookie got the opportunity to develop his burgeoning professional game in the NHL until the end of March. He returned to the American Hockey League at the trade deadline as the Penguins had to straighten out their roster with all the trades they made.
Bennett played five games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before coming back to the parent club just before their road trip began. He made an immediate impact, scoring the game-tying goal in a win over Carolina on April 9. And on Saturday, Bennett got the primary assist on both of Pittsburgh’s first-period goals – his first career multi-point game.
“Feels good,” he said. “You love to contribute, but the win is the major thing. It feels good to win and definitely enjoyed this road trip. It’s been fun so far.”
Bennett had played on the fourth line the previous two games, but with Malkin out, he got an expanded role and he took full advantage of it. Bennett’s skill and craftiness really shined on Morrow’s goal, where he picked up a loose puck on the boards (a turnover created by Vitale), carried it around the net and threaded a pass through bodies in the crease to Morrow. Lots of patience and vision on that play by Bennett.
“I was looking to see what was going to open up and he kind of slid in the back door,” Bennett said. “Good play by him because he kind of waited, waited, and no one saw him slip to the back door. Luckily it got through and he finished.”
“Perfect,” Morrow said of the pass. “He didn’t throw it too hard, so I was able to stop it and just a little bank shot. He’s really poised with the puck for a young guy. He makes some really good plays.”
Veterans Dupuis and Morrow have just clicked since being put together at the start of this road trip. They’re both incredibly hard-working players – Dupuis uses his speed to win battles all around the zone; Morrow uses his muscle to do most of his damage in front of the net – and do a marvelous job of wearing teams down in their own end. They both factored in on Letang’s goal using that work ethic – Dupuis boxed out a player to clear a lane for the shot while Morrow battled with another to provide a screen. Throughout the game, they and tonight’s linemate Bennett had extended shifts in the offensive zone and tilted the ice well.
We talk so much about Dupuis’ versatility, how he can play either the right or left side, can kill penalties and factor on the power play, etc. Now we can add playing center to the long list of what Dupuis does well. He played center maybe once or twice last season when needed, and is so strong in his own end that he’s able to handle the added defensive responsibilities of a center..
Author: Michelle Crechiolo