Thoughts: Game 41 – Powerplay, Crosby show signs of life in Pens 2-1 (OT) win over Montreal

By: Meesh Shanmugam

Here’s a link to the Postgame Thoughts archive, in case you want to catch up on what you may have missed.

Pens 2  Canadiens 1 (OT)

Record: 25-10-6

Goals
Malkin (19) from Despres, Spaling
Crosby (12) (PP) from Malkin, Letang

Click here to read the goal assessments

Gm 41 - Goals

Penalties
Ehrhoff (holding) – Unnecessary (wraps his left arm around Bournival and pulls him away from the puck for a holding penalty)
Bortuzzo (interference) – Stupid (takes down Weise leaving the offensive zone with a second left in the period)
Despres (holding) – Unnecessary (puts his left arm around Subban’s waist twice as he follows him and also grabs his jersey as Subban eventually goes down)
Team (too many men) – Stupid (Bortuzzo plays the puck when he hops on the ice before the man he’s changing for gets onto the bench)

Notable Players

Forwards

Gm 41 - Forwards

Evgeni Malkin – More of Geno being Geno. Malkin paced the offense yet again with a goal on a booming slapshot from the right point and the primary assist on Crosby’s overtime winner. His line continues to produce the most dominant shifts, even with Spaling generally having quiet (but decent) games. The only issue I had with Malkin was an exceptionally high five giveaways in the offensive zone. Two in particular, a drop pass to no one and a pass directly to three Canadiens, bothered me. That’s likely the cost of Malkin carrying the puck as much as he has been though, which is still a good overall trade-off. At this rate, it’ll only be a couple more games before he takes over the NHL scoring lead.

Sidney Crosby – Crosby had a *better* game, but I’m not ready to say good yet (for his standards). He started slow with a couple of lost pucks, a couple of giveaways, and a turnover in the offensive zone that led to the only goal against. Crosby improved drastically as the game went on though. Despite taking a skate to the groin area later in the game, Crosby rallied to cause some chaos around the net as the Penguins dominated the 3rd and then he netted the winner in overtime on a one-timer from Malkin on the powerplay. The extra point was nice, but the one-timer goal on the powerplay could certainly be a nice turning point on the end-of-season DVD for Crosby and the powerplay. To be nit-picky, Crosby still didn’t get everything on that shot, which leaves many questioning the status of his wrist injury from the end of last season, but at least he got the job done. It’s too early to say his “slump” is over, but hopefully this is a step forward.

It looks like Crosby just announced he's getting engaged. (Graham Hughes/AP Photo)

It looks like Crosby just announced he’s getting engaged. (Graham Hughes/AP Photo)

4th Line – The 4th line had a weird mix of good, average, and bad moments throughout this game. They certainly deserve credit for drawing two penalties in the offensive zone (by Goc and Sill). The penalty that Sill drew came on a nice offensive chance for Adams, who was robbed by Price from the top of the crease. Adams had a couple of other nice chances (though, the shots left a lot to be desired). So, there was definitely good. But, there was definitely bad. The 4th line got pinned in the defensive zone several times for extended shifts. One of those instances led to Despres getting forced into a holding penalty. Overall, the 4th line was the only line that struggled to get the puck out of the defensive zone. The drawn penalties are nice, but this is still a necessary upgrade in the 2nd half of the season.

Defensemen/Goalies

Gm 41 - Defense

Marc-Andre Fleury – Fleury didn’t have to do much in the way of dazzling his fans, but his positioning was perfect throughout the night. The only goal he allowed was Pacioretty’s wrister on 2-on-1, which would have been a difficult-to-impossible save for just about every goalie in the league. He made a couple of big saves on a scramble in front at the end of the first period and he was also clutch on the penalty kill, which is a gigantic reason for why the PK has been as dominant as it has been since the early struggles. Though he didn’t get an all-star game nod (which is more due to the team hosting, voting, and roster requirements than performance), he’s definitely playing like an all-star and Vezina candidate.

Christian Ehrhoff – Ehrhoff played his best overall games in weeks and it’s probably a safe assumption that being paired with Letang helped his performance out. He had four broken-up plays in the defensive zone (five total), a pass interception, and a forced turnover to go against only one giveaway, one lost puck, and a lost coverage. That’s a far cry from his near double-digit turnover performance a week ago. Aside from a bad holding penalty, he was steady throughout the night with Letang and they both did a wonderful job of reading each other in a couple of 2-on-1 situations to completely neutralize the odd-man breaks. I expect Ehrhoff to go back to playing with Bortuzzo on Tuesday, but Letang/Ehrhoff is a pairing that the team might want to consider continuing with.

Playing with Letang gave Ehrhoff the powerplay to fight off two Canadiens at once. (Francois Lacasse/Getty Images)

Playing with Letang gave Ehrhoff the powerplay to fight off two Canadiens at once. (Francois Lacasse/Getty Images)

Paul Martin – In terms of advanced stats, Martin dropped off a bit with the move from Letang’s pairing to Bortuzzo’s pairing, but he still read the situations he was given pretty well. In the defensive zone, he had two takeaways, five pass interceptions, and a forced turnover. On the other hand, he led the defense with three defensive zone giveaways, much like Ehrhoff had been doing in the past few games. He was also at fault for a goal against when he skated down the right side into the Canadiens zone with the puck, passed it off to Crosby, but then continued slowly through the corner and gave himself no hope of even trying to get back to help Bortuzzo. It certainly wasn’t the best game for Martin, but he definitely seems more equipped to play with Bortuzzo than Ehrhoff (more below).

Misc. Thoughts

Lineup Thoughts – I was glad to see Kunitz jump back up to the first line. He might not be playing at his old first-line level, but he’s probably the best consistent chance to get Crosby going. I was also a big fan of moving Ehrhoff to the top pairing with Letang and switching Martin down to the 2nd pairing with Bortuzzo. Johnston explained his reasoning before the game, saying that for tougher road games, he wants to balance the pairings better since he can’t pick his matchups. A) the reasoning is great and b) it might not be the worst switch to continue to try out since Martin and Letang are the best two-way defensemen and can each help out their partner’s deficiencies a bit. Finally, play Pouliot or send him down to play. Maybe the organization is trying to work on his defense in practice and off-ice sessions, but I find it hard to believe there is anything more valuable than a young kid getting on the ice, especially with that much talent. Not playing for over a week is just unnecessary, especially when it shouldn’t be hard to scratch Scuderi or Bortuzzo.

Maatta's return can't come soon enough to get Bortuzzo down to the 3rd pairing. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Maatta’s return can’t come soon enough to get Bortuzzo down to the 3rd pairing. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Trading Martin – (h/t to @Pensburgh for their article that prompted me on this) Paul Martin rumors have been flying since the second Ehrhoff was signed in July and hitting the halfway point of the season has done nothing to stop them. While many rumors have been in play for several months (Justin Williams for Paul Martin), I think it’s important to note that things have changed. Every team always wants a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman; those “needs” (wants) will never go away for any roster in the NHL. The value of those “needs” will ebb and flow as a season progresses though. The Penguins were lucky enough to add David Perron as a top-six forward without giving up in defensive depth. Now let me ask you, with one top-six hole filled, which of these do you like better going into the playoffs:

Perron-Crosby-Hornqvist
Kunitz-Malkin-Bennett
Maatta-Letang
Martin-Ehrhoff

or

Williams-Crosby-Perron
Kunitz-Malkin-Hornqvist
Maatta-Letang
Bortuzzo/Despres-Ehrhoff

Despres has shown a tremendous amount of growth this season, but he’s still no Paul Martin. Martin’s ability to eat minutes also keeps the rest of the defense in a much better situation with fatigue and playing within their means.

Pending health, the top-six should be fine. Several guys (Sutter, Comeau, Downie) can step up when necessary. Perron was added at the cost of a 1st-rounder because the time to win is now. If the time to win is now, that’s probably the best reason to keep Martin. Will anyone care if he walks away with no return if the team wins a Stanley Cup? Will he even want to walk away if the team wins a Stanley Cup?

In Stanley Cup or bust thinking, I’m choosing Paul Martin.

Halfway Point – The Pens are a happy 25-10-6 at the halfway mark, good enough for 2nd in the Metro (Isles have played 42 games) and 3rd in the East (Tampa has played 43). Through all of the injuries, this team is still pacing itself near 1st in the conference with potential big returns from Maatta, Hornqvist, and even Comeau coming in the future. The PP is 7th in the league and the PK is 2nd. The offense is ranked 10th and the defense is ranked 4th. The offense *should* pick it up in the coming months, which makes this a scary team in the league right now. Crosby, slump and all, still has 44 points in 38 games, ranking 2nd to Malkin (47 in 41) on the team. It’s tough to suggest there is actually a big hole on this team that needs to be taken care of. The right tinkering and depth work should do the trick. It will be interesting to see what Rutherford has planned as we start focusing more on the trade deadline.

Next Game: 1/13 vs Minnesota, 7pm

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