To say that the Penguins’ special teams play was the reason the club pulled out a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild at CONSOL Energy Center Saturday afternoon in the “Free Game for Kids” is like saying Mario Lemieux is the greatest hockey player of all time.
Both are ridiculously obvious.
The Penguins’ power play scored four goals (three in one sequence of penalties), while their penalty killers successfully averted all nine disadvantages – including two five-on-three shorthanded series.
“We tried to establish a couple things. One of them is right off the faceoff being in a shooter’s mentality,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think it was good to see our power play try to establish some things that an effective power play does and then get rewarded. We did those tonight.”
The dynamic of the game changed in the middle of the second period after Marco Scandella was given two two-minute penalties for instigating. The Penguins had already been on the power play, and the additional penalty gave them a 5-on-3.
Pittsburgh made the most of the opportunity. Eighteen-year-old defenseman Joseph Morrow
, the Penguins’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2011, lit up a one-timer from the point that eluded goaltender Niklas Backstrom to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.
It was his first goal scored at this high a level of competitive hockey.
“I mean, I’m expecting to wake up tomorrow morning and this will all be a dream for me, but I think I’m awake right now,” Morrow said. “I pinched myself a couple times, but I didn’t expect any of this. To have the opportunity the coaches give me on the power play and penalty kill, to have the amount of ice time I’ve been given, and to play with the players I’ve been playing with, it’s been phenomenal. It’s unbelievable.”
“We’ve heard about and talked about his shot, we saw that tonight,” Bylsma said. “We heard about his skating ability, and that’s been on display in the two games that he’s played. And the one thing the quality of the person and the confidence for an 18-year old kid has been exceptional. It’s kind of coming through as you see him playing games.
“He looks under control, he looks confident in his ability and we see the attributes that made him a high draft pick. He’s been outstanding. He’s been pretty calm and collected and confident under the fire of two exhibition games.”
The Penguins would add two more power-play goals over the next two-plus minutes with forward Pascal Dupuis
and defenseman Brian Strait
getting scores. Strait’s goal came at the end of a perfectly executed faceoff play.
“I think we were trying to run a one-timer and it just came straight back to me,” Strait said. “It was a great play by the centerman there. I just saw it and saw an open lane, fired on that and I don't think the goalie ever saw it. It was unbelievable. The guys have been doing a great job on that and it paid off on my goal.”
Malkin concluded the scoring with a power-play goal five minutes into the third period to give the Penguins a 4-0 lead.
But the Penguins’ PK unit, ranked No. 1 in the NHL last year with an 86.1-percent success rate, was just as marvelous as the power play. The group killed off all nine shorthanded situations, with two 5-on-3 disadvantages.
No play or player symbolized the penalty killers more than forward Joe Vitale
in the second period.
With his team down two men, Vitale was a part of the three-man PK group. An errant puck was sliding toward the boards. A Wild player had leverage to reach it first, but Vitale dove forward, laying out his body and swatting the puck out of the zone with his outreached stick.
“You got to be strong on draws like that and be aggressive like we were there,” Vitale said. “To be aggressive right of the bat and right off the draws, and I think we did that. They kind of fumbled the puck here and there a little bit, so when you kind of put pressure on, you give yourself a chance to make plays like that.”
Combine all those special teams elements together and the result is a 4-1 triumph.