The turnaround is on for Pittsburgh. After failing to win four straight games, the Pens won both games of a weekend back-to-back against one of the best teams in the NHL , the Blues, and a team ferociously fighting for a playoff spot, the Panthers.
The Pens defeated Florida at home Sunday night, led by another stellar performance by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and two goals from Evgeni Malkin. Malkin’s first goal was a huge tally, as it came with less than a minute remaining in the second period. With the score 1-0 in favor of the Penguins, Malkin stole the puck in the neutral zone, and glided through Florida’s defense and put a backhand through the five-hole of goalie Al Montoya. The goal, which is considered the winner, put momentum back on the side of the Penguins heading into the third period. They would go on to put up three more goals, including another from Malkin, to defeat the Panthers handily, by a score of 5-1.
Geno wasn’t the only Penguin to have a multi-goal game. Malkin’s linemate Patric Hornqvist scored a couple as well, the first and fourth goals. The first was on a beautiful takeaway and pass by defenseman and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang. Letang was able to steal the puck near the boards, and then find Hornqvist in front of the net. The second-line winger buried the opportunity, and Pittsburgh was on the board first. His second, and third of the weekend, came on the power play. Malkin fed it down low to Sidney Crosby, who proceeded to pull one of his signature escape routes from behind the net. After breaking the ankles of a defenseman, Crosby centered it in front, where Hornqvist shuffled the puck off the pad of Montoya. Hornqvist then pounced the rebound, backhanding it into the open part of the net to extend Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-0.
The other goal was netted by defenseman Paul Martin, on another pass from Crosby. Aside from Crosby, Hornqvist also got an assist on the goal. So while Malkin and Hornqvist each put up three points, neither of them were the real star of the game. That would be goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
The All-Star Fleury, who was coming off a rest on Saturday, played incredibly well for Pittsburgh. He stopped onslaughts of shots thrown at him from multiple different sources wearing red, white, and blue. He saved 34 of 35 shots from Florida, and held strong even when the Pens were constantly turning over the puck in the neutral zone. If not for the stone wall that is the Flower, the Penguins could have been blown out, especially in the second period.
For most of the middle period, the Panthers controlled the game. They did well at keeping the puck in their offensive zone for long periods of time, and were able to constantly fire shots at Fleury and the Penguins defenders, who managed to block multiple of them. Fleury was standing on his head to keep pucks from hitting the net. If multiple shots that were saved by Fleury had gone in, the Flower wouldn’t have been blamed for the goals. That is how you know you played well as a goalie.
The Pens kept their lines the same, for the most part. The only difference was that they scratched fourth-line mainstay Craig Adams, instead opting for the more offensively-talented Steve Downie, who had been a healthy-scratch in St. Louis. The second-line continued to impress, as did the first. The new concoction of lines came up with by coach Mike Johnston have worked to perfection on this weekend back-to-back. If only he came up with them sooner.
The absence of Adams opened a spot on the penalty-killing team. That spot was filled by Crosby, who isn’t exactly a mainstay on the unit. The penalty-killers did well, not letting Florida put one by Fleury when they were on the man-advantage. The Penguins’ man-advantage team played equally well. They managed to net a power-play goal, courtesy of Hornqvist, so the eight-ranked unit were able to up their stats, and more importantly, up their production.
On the 35th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, the Penguins played well again to coast to their second-straight victory. While their overall play in recent weeks was not ideal, they showed they are ready to start playing like a team ready to contend for a Stanley Cup.
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