If you could pick any team to end Pittsburgh’s dominance on home ice, the Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad choice. After all, they’ve won six of the seven all-time meetings between the teams in this city.
But that was before tonight.
The Pens scored the opening goal within the first minute of play for the third straight home game, and they never looked back as they skated to a 5-2 win over the visiting Wild. The Pens have not trailed on CONSOL Energy Center ice for 317 minutes and 19 seconds (dating back to Nov. 27 against Toronto), the same surface they have won nine straight games on to give them the NHL’s best home record at 16-3.
“I think with this group right now, getting out to a good start and to a lead, settles the group down,” head coach Dan Bylsma said of his younger, inexperienced group. “You keep playing, keep playing forward, keep playing the right way. You’re not looking at the opposition; you’re not looking at the situation being down in a game. We’ve played forward, we’ve played hard, we’ve come out with good starts in a lot of these games and been able to get that goal.
“It’s something early on in the year, even with a much different lineup, we struggled to do even when we played well. I think that’s been extremely big and tonight, getting that one, especially after a game last night and coming home late, coming out the way we did I thought was a big part of the game.”
The Pens have now won six overall and 11 of their past 12. Goalie Jeff Zatkoff made 24 saves to win his sixth straight. Olli Maatta scored a shorthanded penalty shot goal and added two assists for the rookie defenseman’s first career three-point game. Chris Kunitz scored twice to become the first Penguin to reach the 20-goal mark (37 games) while Brandon Sutter and Matt Niskanen also put the puck in the back of the net for Pittsburgh. Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley scored for Minnesota.
The Pens started strong, but overall the first period had no pace as the unfamiliar foes felt each other out and got slowed down by two fights in the first five minutes. The Pens opened it up in the second with three big goals in the first half, but the Wild fought back with two scores of their own to make it 4-2 before getting a huge 5-on-3 power play late in the third. However, the Pens came up with a big penalty kill – led by Herculean efforts from Zach Sill and Robert Bortuzzo – and Maatta scored with four seconds left to get Pittsburgh back the momentum.
OH, OLLI NIGHT!
A year ago, Olli Maatta was starring with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League as a baby-faced 18-year-old blueliner.
Now, Maatta is making history for the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League as a baby-faced 19-year-old blueliner.
With his mother in the stands to watch her son play for the first time, Maatta became just the second Penguins defenseman in franchise history to score on a penalty shot (George Konik) in the Penguins’ 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild at CONSOL Energy Center Thursday night.
“I was really nervous,” Maatta said. “I tried not to push my stick too hard. It worked.”
Before Maatta scored, he had been sitting in the box with the Penguins' top penalty killer Craig Adams watching as their teammates dealt with 1:46 minutes of being down two men. If the Wild convert that 5-on-3 chance, given to them with just under six minutes left to play in regulation, the Pens' lead is cut to 4-3 and what seemed like a certain victory no longer does.
"At that point in the game, that's a pretty big kill," Niskanen said. "If they get one there, it's a different ball game. Things get a little hairy."
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they got tremendous efforts from their PKers, primarily Bortuzzo and Sill, to keep Minnesota from getting a big goal and getting back in the game.
"It's another good effort for us shorthanded," said Sutter, who joined those two as the first group of three over the boards for the Pens. "We've had a few now at critical points in the game and over the last week or two here in the last five minutes where we've had 5-on-3s, 5-on-4s. But we've come through in every situation, so that's been great."
Bortuzzo and Sill were especially tremendous. Bortuzzo stayed on the ice for the majority of that particular kill, logging a team-leading 4:16 shorthanded minutes in the game. He was tasked with trying to keep the Wild from making back-door plays, and the 6-4 defenseman used his long wingspan to swing his stick through the lanes and his big frame to block shots. In addition to using his speed and tenacity to hound the Wild, Sill made an amazing play to spring Maatta for the goal when he lobbed him a flip pass, Murphy dump style, to get him behind the D.
The Penguins lineup is riddled up and down with injuries. The top-four defenseman are out. Nine Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have appeared in games for Pittsburgh.
And despite injuries piling up what seems like every night, there has been one constant.
The Penguins’ top forward line of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis has been producing at a rapid pace, one that would make it seem like there is no added pressure without the likes of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang in the lineup for periods of time.
“It is great to help your team win,” Dupuis said. “At the same time, the pressure is there every night to produce. You play with Sidney Crosby on a line, people are expecting you to get some points and do well. I don’t think with the guys we have out there that there is added pressure. Guys have stepped in and have played great for us. They have really helped.”
GUTSY EFFORT BY D
The Pens defensemen have all had to step into bigger roles with injuries to all of their top-four guys and Deryk Engelland serving a suspension. Niskanen and Maatta have been tasked with shouldering the bulk of the load, and have handled it with aplomb. But just when we think they can’t impress us any more with what they’ve been able to do, they find another way to contribute.
Not only did they lead another gutsy defensive effort in their own zone; they contributed on the other end of the ice as well. Maatta assisted on the Penguins’ first two goals in addition to scoring one of his own, while Niskanen followed that up by netting his second power-play goal of the season and first since Oct. 12 at Tampa Bay.
“It sucks having our best guys out, you don’t want to see anybody hurt,” Niskanen said. “But for the time being, it’s a fun opportunity. Bunch of young guys with good attitudes who just come to the rink every day, enjoy the heck out of it and work. And I think we’re overachieving a little bit right now, (but) it’s pretty darn fun. Guys are enjoying it and taking full advantage to showcase what we can do. Some new guys in the lineup, it’s a fun opportunity for the time being.”
- Jeff Zatkoff turned away 24 of 26 shots to pick up his 6th consecutive win. He becomes the first rookie Penguin goalie to win six consecutive games since Johan Hedberg did so in a stretch of six games from Mar. 25-Apr. 8, 2001.
“I just try not to worry about what happened last,” he said of not getting too high during his amazing stretch. “Every game is a new game and when I get in there, I try to give the team a chance. Best I can. It's obviously nice I've got a little streak going, but once the game's over, it's over and it's on to the next one.”
- Brandon Sutter is a fantastic two-way player. He has brought the defensive part all season long, and now the offense is coming fast and furious.The Penguins center scored for a third straight game Thursday to tie his career-long streak from three years ago when he put a shot past Niklas Backstrom just 1:54 into the second period to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.
- Sidney Crosby had 2 assists tonight, extending his point streak to 9 games (6G-9A-15PTS). The assists are his league-leading 50th and 51st points of the season.
- James Neal returned to the lineup after serving his five-game suspension. He assisted on Niskanen’s goal to give him points in the last five games he has dressed.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo