PITTSBURGH – There are 26 games remaining until the NHL playoffs begin. There will be roster moves and schematic tweaks that alter every contender’s overall play.
Two weeks ago, after a 5-1 loss to Florida, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said that the poor defensive habits and poor puck management that had plagued the team for weeks leading up to that loss finally caught up to them. It was something that had to change if the Penguins were going to be ready for the playoffs.
“Even though we were winning some games, it was always a high-scoring game,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “That’s not the way we want to play in the playoffs.”
The Penguins had a few false starts in their attempt to be better. They won 5-1 two nights later against Montreal, but had to outscore the Islanders 6-4 the next day. Since a 3-0 loss to Dallas, though, the Penguins have won three of their last four and given up two goals in those three games.
Monday night’s 2-1 overtime win over Ottawa was the latest example of the Penguins controlling a game with their puck possession and playing stout enough defense to survive a low-scoring game.
“It’s been a focus of ours to start playing more responsible in our own end and get pucks deep into their end and not have as many turnovers,” forward Brian Gibbons said. “Guys bought in tonight and we did a great job of that.”
Bylsma said the last three games against the Kings, Coyotes and Senators were good barometers for his team in terms of being able to handle tightly contested, playoff-style games.
“We have to be comfortable in that one-goal game and in that type of situation,” Bylsma said. “That’s where we were at all night long.”
It helps to have a strong goaltender backing the defensive effort up, and Marc-Andre Fleury provided perhaps the save of the year when he robbed Erik Karlsson in the third period. Fleury’s sprawling glove save brought Karlsson to his knees in disbelief and had the Penguins still buzzing about it afterward.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen another save live that’s any better than that one,” Bylsma said.
But even though the Penguins needed that spectacular save to keep the game even, Karlsson’s scoring chance was exactly what the Penguins wanted it to be: A rarity.
“We didn’t give them a lot defensively. I would be surprised if they get past 10 scoring chances in this game,” Bylsma said. “They did have a couple great ones. We saw Marc make two great saves, and the glove save in particular.”
Most important to Bylsma was the notion that the Penguins played well defensively and with the puck for a full 60 minutes. It’s the type of performance they were lacking two weeks ago.
“We had to stick with it the whole game long, through the refereeing, through the tough sledding of the game, and we did,” Bylsma said. “It’s definitely a building block for our team.”