PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were a puck-hogging, ice-tilting blur last spring, overwhelming opponents with an avalanche of shots and sustained offensive pressure that ended with the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.
A year later, the faces in the lineup – save for two very notable exceptions – are largely the same. But the Penguins are going about their business in a much different way.
The group that earned a grimy 3-2 victory on Wednesday against increasingly baffled Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals spent most of the night comfortably buried in its own end. Pittsburgh blocked 24 shots while steering net-front traffic away from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to take a 3-1 series lead as star Sidney Crosby watched in a suit while recovering from a concussion.
“We win games different ways,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Some games we win blocking shots and killing penalties. Other games we win off our counterattack or power play.”
In Game 4, it was a little bit of everything. Washington went 0 for 4 with the man advantage. Pittsburgh’s first goal came on a Patric Hornqvist breakaway set up by a beautiful stretch pass from Olli Maatta. The second was courtesy of a takeaway that ended with Jake Guentzel’s crossing pass smacking off Washington defenceman Dmitry Orlov’s skate and into the net. The third was a laser by Justin Schultz on the power play just past the midway point that gave the Penguins the lead for good.
Throw in another spectacular performance by Fleury and a lock down third period in which the Capitals only managed to get eight shots all the way to the net and Pittsburgh is on the verge of eliminating the Presidents’ Trophy winners for the second straight season and the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings.
And the Penguins did it without Crosby, who is out indefinitely after taking a cross-check to the head from Washington’s Matt Niskanen early in Game 3. Crosby skated with a handful of teammates during a scheduled off day on Thursday, but Sullivan offered no timetable on his captain’s return. Game 5 is Saturday.
“He’s in the process of rehabbing and we’ll just leave it at that,” Sullivan said. “It’s a day-to-day process.”
So is the chameleon-like evolution of his team, seemingly game to game. Sullivan has preached speed since the moment he arrived in December 2015. Pittsburgh recovered from an early season malaise to sprint through the 2016 playoffs, where it averaged 34.8 shots a game while allowing just 28.
Having a skilled group that includes Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang certainly helped. So did an influx of young legs. The Penguins incessantly skated and chased, poke-checked and darted. It allowed them to lead the NHL in goals this year while posting the second-best record in the league even with Letang lost for the season in February, part of a rash of injuries along the blue line that forced Sullivan to mix and match.
Yet the team that is 7-2 so far in the playoffs is playing a far more conservative brand of hockey, a byproduct of missing the puck-wielding, minute-hogging Letang. Pittsburgh is averaging 29.2 shots per game so far while giving up 37.3. Throw in the 22.6 shots the Penguins are blocking before they get to Fleury and that’s basically a shot a minute. And still Pittsburgh has been firmly in control throughout the first three weeks of the playoffs.
Fleury’s remarkable play certainly helps. So does the work of the men in front of him. And he knows it.
“It was a hard game to play,” Fleury said after making 36 saves in Game 4. “They come hard and they have good skill. I thought our guys stuck with it all game long.”
The examples were everywhere. There was Hornqvist dropping to his knees to get in front of a shot in the first period even though he was drilled by a shot in Game 2 that left him hobbled. There was 37-year-old Chris Kunitz backchecking and throwing his body around as if he was a decade younger. There was Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin managing all of two shots while being held without a goal for the third straight game, then calling himself out afterward for his uninspired play.
Even as the Capitals buzzed around, there was no panic in the Penguins. It wasn’t always that way for a team that lost to a lower-seeded team in the post-season every year from 2010-14. It is now.
“The competitiveness of this team, the desperation that the guys in this locker room showed out there,” defenceman Ian Cole said.
If the Penguins can find a way to do it again over the next three games, they’ll be on to the conference finals and halfway toward a repeat. They’re not getting ahead of themselves, especially without Crosby. Then again, the team whose stars used to be focused on style points is playing with a serious amount of substance.
“What I’ve really admired about this group of players that we have,” Sullivan said, “is just their compete level that allows them the opportunity to find ways to win games.”