Breakdown: Games 76 and 77 – Penguins 5, Sabres 4; Penguins 5, Predators 2

Breakdown

By: @chetstead

The Pens’ wins over Buffalo and Nashville this week were quite different in many ways, but they featured an important constant: the Penguins simply refuse to lose.

Pittsburgh’s easily the NHL’s hottest team right now. The play of Phil Kessel, in the absence of Evgeni Malkin, has played a big role in the streak. In fact, Kessel’s whole line has elevated its play.

Here’s hoping Phil can carry his momentum into the playoffs. If he maintains this level of play, the Penguins will be hard to beat.

Mike Sullivan’s biggest challenge right now will be figuring out how to fit Malkin back into the lineup, considering Nick Bonino’s success on the second line.

 

Game 76

Against the Sabres, things got off to a rocky start. Buffalo jumped out to a three-goal lead, despite the fact that the Penguins dominated possession. A few bad bounces and some shaky play by Matt Murray resulted in the Pens playing from behind going into the second period.

Secondary scoring came through in a big way in the second. Ben Lovejoy, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Nick Bonino all netted goals. Kuhnhackl’s and Bonino’s goals came just a few seconds apart near the end of the period. While Chad Johnson played admirably in keeping the Penguins off the board in the first, he couldn’t do much to stop the scoring onslaught in the second. In particular, Johnson shouldered the blame for Bonino’s goal when he skated behind the net to play a puck and Carl Hagelin forced a turnover. Lovejoy’s goal was a thing of beauty as Kuhnhackl, Rust and Lovejoy combined on a tic-tac-toe play on the rush.

Zach Bogosian tied it up on the powerplay early in the third and the game went to overtime. Letang played over 35 minutes in this one. It certainly gives the Penguins a boost when they can rely on Letang to eat up minutes despite injuries to Maatta and Dumoulin. Lovejoy and Ian Cole remain a weak point on the Pens’ blue line, but give Lovejoy credit for making the plays in this one.

Kessel and Letang scored in the shootout to give the Pens the two points in this one. Buffalo isn’t a top-tier team, but they’re much improved over last year. The Pens will take the two points and move on.

 

Game 77

The Pens put the pressure on Pekka Rinne early. A wide-open Kessel took a pass from Schultz and buried it. It’s been noted that Kessel isn’t likely to score on many one-timers due to the whippy flex on his stick. On this goal, he settled the puck and then put it past a diving Rinne. In this case at least, it paid off to control the puck rather than attempt a rushed shot.

Both James Neal and Patric Hornqvist scored in this one. Neal has more goals on the season, but I’d rather have Hornqvist any day of the week. Neal’s goal came after he broke Fleury’s mask with a shot. Fleury’s helmet was falling off as Neal wound up a second shot. The goal counted because Fleury couldn’t get the timeout.

Ryan Johansen scored in the first off a pass from Neal behind the net.

Kessel’s second goal was a classic Kessel wrister on the rush. One of the best wrist shots in the league. In the third, Kessel took a shot on the exact same type of opportunity. This time, Rinne made the save.

Conor Sheary continued his streak of solid play. He doesn’t get many minutes, but he makes the best of the time he gets lately.

Letang blasted a slapshot through two Preds players to beat Rinne in the second. As long as Letang doesn’t get tired from the massive amounts of ice time he’s getting, he’ll be a key to the Pens’ success entering the playoffs.

Unfortunately Bryan Rust went down with an injury, dampening the victory a bit. Nonetheless, the Penguins swept the season series against the Predators.

The news that Fleury suffered a concussion sometime during the game – perhaps on the Neal shot? – further adds to concerns.