The Penguins nearly got away with a sloppy defensive effort on Friday against the New York Rangers, their last game before the NHL’s Olympic break. And while Pittsburgh took New York all the way to a shootout, led by their top-ranked power play, Brad Richards scored the game-deciding goal to give the Rangers a 4-3 win.
Olli Maatta, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal all scored for the Penguins, who go into the break with a 15-point Metropolitan Division lead over the second-place Rangers.
“It was not a good game for us,” said Malkin, who will return to his native Russia for the Games with goals in four of his last five games. “We tried to play, but the Rangers played better. We were lucky to take one point. The last 10 minutes I think we played better than the Rangers, but the whole game we need to play 60 minutes and 60 minutes we did not play great.”
The Penguins were outworked in their own end, and the Rangers’ shot total was an indicator of that. Marc-Andre Fleury got a much bigger workload than usual, making 38 saves in the game. While he did everything he could to keep his team in it, his effort turned out to be for naught as the Rangers handed Fleury his first shootout loss of the season (he is now 3-1).
“Maybe it wasn’t the best game of the season,” Fleury said. “We found a way to hang on and get back into it. It’s always a little risky when you go into a shootout, but it’s our first loss. It sucks.”
After the way he played tonight, 19-year-old Olli Maatta should certainly be feeling confident heading into his first Olympics. The rookie defenseman scored Pittsburgh’s first goal, drew the penalty that they scored their second on and earned the primary assist on their third.
Even though he’s just a teenager, Maatta has been making plays that aren’t just indicative of a much older player – but an elite one. Having just played game 58 of his rookie season, Maatta has said he feels so much more comfortable compared to how he was at the beginning. And it’s evident in his decision-making.
On his goal, Maatta recognized that there was open space by the net and determined that he was going to be the one to fill it. He sneaked in undetected by the Rangers penalty killers, and capitalized on a loose puck in the crease.
Then in the third, Maatta had the confidence to follow a puck into the corner and the strength to fight off Rangers forward Chris Kreider and box him out into the boards. Maatta then had the vision to find Neal in the slot and hit him with a perfect pass that he was able to put past Lundqvist.
“There were three or four plays in this game besides the one he made to get on the scoresheet that he showed his confidence with the puck back at the point, distributing it,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “The power play, he was the weak side. He comes down on a puck to the net and gets the rebound that's there for him. The play at the end of the game we were in a pinch, desperate situation, forcing the play. He gets down there and tries to shovel it. He knows there's a guy over there. He makes a great play to get it over to Nealer so we can draw even in the game and squeak out a point in this game.”
Both team’s power plays came up big tonight, each going 2-for-4 on their chances.Pittsburgh’s No. 1-ranked power play helped bail them out at the other end.
The first one came in the first period, with just 32 seconds remaining on a penalty to Carl Hagelin. Maatta and Paul Martin, members of the second unit, had just come onto the ice for Neal and Matt Niskanen and joined their teammates in the offensive zone. Maatta saw that there was an open seam at the side of the net and immediately crashed, and was rewarded. A shot from Crosby went off Lundqvist’s pad right to a crashing Maatta, who knocked it into the open net.
The second one came in the second period, and the play centered around Malkin. First Niskanen passed over to him at the wall, where he surveyed his options before deciding on Neal in the slot – who gave it right back. They went back and forth a second time, with Malkin lining up Neal’s pass and firing an absolute bullet far side past Lundqvist.
While it wasn’t surprising that Pittsburgh’s top-ranked power play converted, it was slightly more of a surprise how hot New York’s was considering their recent slump and the efficiency of the Penguins’ penalty kill.
The Rangers had gone 0-for-14 on the power play entering tonight, while the Penguins had killed off the last 27 chances against at home. Tonight it just wasn’t Pittsburgh’s night.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo