Adversity was staring the Penguins right in the eyes on Saturday afternoon at Mellon Arena. Less than 72 hours after a 2-0 home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh was facing its second-consecutive defeat at a time in the season when points are oh so precious.
Instead of folding under pressure the team once again rose above it, tying the contest late in regulation on a Sergei Gonchar power-play goal with 1:14 remaining, and then stealing the extra point thanks to Jordan Leopold’s sharp-angle game-winner 2:50 into the overtime.
“It’s one of the big ones, that’s for sure,” Gonchar said. “We didn’t play that well last game. We all knew we had to play better. It seems like our team responded very well.
“I don’t know if it’s crucial, but it’s a big win for us. We haven’t played as well lately. If you look at us today, we did a great job systems-wise. We did a lot of good things. We have to continue building on that.”
On an afternoon where several players took turns wearing Superman’s cape for the Penguins, it was Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin
, who each tallied a goal and an assist, flying the highest for Pittsburgh, which jumped back ahead of the New Jersey Devils for the lead in the race for the Atlantic Division crown, pending the outcome of the Devils’ contest in Carolina on Saturday night.
Because of talent possessed by each, it’s never surprising when the Penguins receive offensive contributions from their talented Russian duo, but given the fact Malkin had missed seven of the previous eight games with a foot injury, and Gonchar had sat out four-straight due to illness, the pair’s production on Saturday was all the more gratifying.
“That was a very good game from Geno because the skating, offensive attacking in the offensive zone on our power play, but also his play away from the puck, his tracking,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “A couple times he created turnovers by working back in the defensive zone as well, but all around it was a game you expect when Geno is on his game and dominating play in his way.”
Both players starred all over the ice for the Penguins, who have now posted a 9-4-3 record since returning from the Olympic break, especially so on the power play, which was just 2-for-17 during the four games both missed together, but went 2-for-5 today, as Malkin and Gonchar each found the back of the cage on the man-advantage.
While both goals were huge, none was more important than Gonchar’s game-tying tally in the third period.
As the scoreboard clock was slowly ticking away, Malkin retreated into his own zone, where he gradually built up speed as he lugged the puck through the neutral zone. Malkin hurriedly carried the rubber over the Atlanta blue line until he found Gonchar alone at the midpoint out of the corner of his eye.
Malkin’s pass hit Gonchar in stride, allowing the Penguins defenseman to walk into a slap shot which sailed past a startled Johan Hedberg to send the game into overtime, 3-3.
“He did a good job moving through the neutral zone with speed,” Gonchar said. “He drew a lot of attention as everybody dropped down low. That’s why I was able to receive the pass with nobody around me.”
“I had good speed coming down the wing,” Malkin said. “I saw Gonch open and just tried to give him an easy pass so he could just shoot. Gonch had a great shot.”
Great shots were the theme of the afternoon for both Malkin and Gonchar.
The Penguins, who trailed Atlanta on three separate occasions before Leopold’s overtime winner, got on the board thanks to Malkin’s power-play marker midway through the second period.
A nifty passing sequence which saw the puck go from Gonchar to Sidney Crosby
to Alex Goligoski before finally ending on the blade of Malkin, was completed when Malkin one-timed a laser into an empty cage from the bottom of the right circle, tying the game, 1-1, with his 12th power-play score of the season.
“We moved the puck very well on that one,” Malkin said. “Sid passed it to Gogo. When Gogo passed it to me I had a one-timer with an open net so all I had to do was shoot.”
Atlanta retook the lead, 2-1, later in the second on a Tim Stapleton power-play goal, but the Penguins answered that score 3:27 into the third period behind another powerful slap shot by Gonchar.
Crosby stickhandled out of the far corner with the puck and delivered a feed to Gonchar standing at the top of the right circle. Hedberg was able to stand his ground and make a save on Gonchar’s blast, but the shot had so much velocity it caromed right onto the stick of Tyler Kennedy
to the left of the net, giving him easy pickings to notch his 12th goal of the season.
As impressive as Malkin’s and Gonchar’s performances were on Saturday, and as badly as the Penguins needed the two points in the standings, you can make an argument the best news to come from the day was the fact both players were able to get through the game and still felt good after. If the Penguins are going to continue racking up the Ws down the stretch, they are going to need both players performing at their peak level heading into the postseason.
“I had a lot of power in my stride today,” Malkin said. “I had a lot of rest. I felt good out there today. … My whole body was able to get a little rest but I was also working out in the gym. I think it has helped me a little bit.”