Adam Williams The Hockey Writers
Penguins Put a Halt to Criticisms, For Now
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been inconsistent this 2015 calendar year, to say the least. They’ve posted a 10-8-4 record since the start of the new year, with the most recent victory over a Western powerhouse team in the St. Louis Blues Saturday night. The 4-2 score was something to behold for Penguins fans, who haven’t seen more than one goal in their previous three contests.
While the victory seems to be a step in the right direction, it is not something that immediately covers up the previous blemishes. It was a big win, but they cannot relax.
Cause For Concern?
After a disappointing 2-1 loss to neighboring state rivals, the Columbus Blue Jackets, many Penguin fans were ready to clear house; trade any and everyone; no one is safe. The team that boasts such talent like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, David Perron, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury should not lose, ever. Never ever.
Of course that’s paraphrasing with a hint of creative license, but the gist is there.
It’s not like the Penguins have not been competing hard, it’s just that they’ve been on the wrong end of things lately. Defensively, the team has played just fine. Leading up to the victory over the Blues, the Penguins allowed five goals in three games, not counting the shootout goal in Chicago and the empty-netter against Washington.
What more can be asked of Marc-Andre Fleury? The man has played an amazing campaign; one of his career best. He set the Penguins’ franchise record for most shutouts in a season with eight against the Calgary Flames earlier this month and has great numbers to back up his on-ice performance (2.18 GAA, .924 SV%).
The Penguins were simply in an offensive slump. They had become complacent in their lines, their pairings; their way of playing. Saturday night, head coach Mike Johnston switched up the lines and lo and behold, different results occurred.
Fans had been begging for weeks for the Penguins to put Hornqvist-Crosby-Perron together on a line. It finally happened and the results were so-so.
First, you have a strong offensive-minded line with hardworking forwards who like to crash the net. Puck possession is a big part of their game, as it should be. The line came out on fire registering shot after shot and getting glorious opportunities throughout the night.
Hornqvist potted his 16th goal of the season on the power play in the second period, from a Crosby assist.
On the flipside, Hornqvist and Crosby were a minus-2, Perron and minus-1 on the evening. Not alarming due to the win, but something to keep an eye on down the road.
The second line saw Chris Kunitz bumped down to play alongside Evgeni Malkin and Blake Comeau. Similar in make-up as the first line, but different results. Comeau, who has play exceptionally well since returning from injury, scored two goals and added an assist with a plus-3 rating on the night. Malkin and Kunitz were both a plus-2, with Malkin picking up an assist.
A move that drew the online ire of the Penguins faithful was sitting Steve Downie in favor of Zach Sill. While Downie had contributed a bit offensively in recent games, his lack of discipline may haven proven costly. Perhaps in a move to try and “tame” Downie, Sill was inserted into the line up and saw over 11 minutes of ice-time with three hits. Splitting time on the third line (Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett) and fourth line (Maxim Lapierre and Craig Adams), Sill had another solid game which displayed what he brings to the table.
Since he didn’t score a goal, however, his play will not be deemed acceptable to most who support the black and gold.
No Rest for the Weary
There is no doubt that the Penguins picking up two points in St. Louis was needed and essentially necessary before riots struck the city, however they cannot, as Evgeni Malkin said in a post-game interview after their loss to Columbus, “relax.” This team has coasted on talent for too many years. For the first time in about seven years, this team is battling for their playoff lives.
They return to the ice against the Florida Panthers for a special 6:00 P.M. start time Sunday evening. Florida is a hungry, young team on the edge of claiming that final wildcard spot. There is no doubt in my mind that Florida is going to come out with all guns blazing, looking to defeat the Penguins and emphatically at that, just to prove that they are for real.
The easiest thing to take away from the victory in St. Louis is that the Penguins captured two points, pretty convincingly. However, if this team is to continue their momentum into the playoffs, they cannot overlook teams like the Florida Panthers, like they have in previous seasons.
The Eastern Conference has gotten much better over the last couple years and this bit of healthy competition has to inspire the Penguins. If it does not, they better be looking for some available tee times in April.
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