Olli Maatta #3 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal against Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators during the first period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Canadian Tire Centre on May 19, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
What should present the Ottawa Senators an opportunity keeps turning into a Pittsburgh Penguins rallying point.
Playing with five defencemen due to an in-game injury. The Penguins are making a winning habit of it.
In Game 4, for the second time in this Eastern Conference final, the Penguins lost a defenceman early. Late in the first period, Chad Ruhwedel received a high hit from Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan that left him bleeding from the nose and suffering from a concussion.
Ho hum. Pittsburgh played the rest of the game with five defencemen, extending a 1-0 lead to a 3-0 lead midway through period two before the Senators rallied for a pair of goals in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win.
The Penguins return to home ice for Game 5 in a 2-2 series trying to reverse the trend of one-game winning streaks.
“It’s time for us to take two games in a row here,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, at the club’s media availability in Ottawa on Saturday.
The Penguins’ blue-line, already missing key puck movers in Kris Letang and Justin Schultz, not only survived the loss of Ruhwedel, it chipped in a pair of goals compliments of Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin. It was Maatta’s first career playoff goal.
“It feels awesome,” said Maatta, breaking into a grin.
Head coach Mike Sullivan calls his defence corps the “unsung heroes” of the team.
“These guys just quietly go about their business,” Sullivan said. “They’re vitally important to our team and the success we’ve had to this point. They’re competing hard. We’re not a perfect group back there by any stretch but these guys are playing hard and I love their competitive level.”
In Game 2, the Penguins lost Schultz to injury and survived for a 1-0 victory.
Sullivan reiterated that Schultz and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust remain day-to-day. Schultz could return to action in Game 5, but Pittsburgh’s lineup won’t be confirmed until Sunday, prior to the matinée game.
“We’ve had so many injuries over the course of these playoffs,” Sullivan said. “We’ve lost a defenceman early in the game where we’re forced to go to five, and these guys don’t think twice. They just keep playing. And nothing fazes them back there.”
Especially with Letang out for an extended period, it’s easy to overlook Pittsburgh’s defence and focus on the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel up front.
“We have some dynamic forwards that a lot of times capture the storylines,” Sullivan said. “But these guys playing behind them are quietly doing a real good job for us.”
It helped ease the burden on the five-man defensive unit that Pittsburgh’s forwards carried the play in Game 4, keeping the puck in Ottawa’s zone for long stretches. Maatta says the D-corps loves to prove itself.
“We’re a confident group that way,” Maatta said. “We know we’re good enough to win. We have such good forwards, we just have to play a simple game.”
While the Senators continue to lament their 0-for-25 power play (over a nine-game period), the flip side to the story is Pittsburgh’s effective penalty killing.
In Game 4, the Penguins shut down all four Ottawa manpower advantages, frustrating the Senators to the point they received rare booing from fans in their own arena.
Killing penalties is not one of Crosby’s duties, but the captain admired a lot of “different things” that added up to successful kills.
“We did a good job on clears (from the D-zone),” Crosby said. “That was important. We had some faceoff wins and we were able to get rid of pressure quickly. And then, even up ice we were pretty good at being aggressive and forcing some mistakes.”
Hagelin, who found his legs in Game 4, was a force on the PK, one of the forwards who used sticks in the passing lanes to break up Senators rushes. Nick Bonino had a couple of big blocks, including in the dying seconds when Ottawa was trying to force overtime.
“We took a step in the right direction with how aggressive we were,” Hagelin said. “We did a good job of clearing the puck every time we had a chance. You don’t want to give those guys too many opportunities. Last game we took a few too many penalties. But we found a way to kill them.”
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the Ottawa Senators during the third period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Canadian Tire Centre on May 19, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)
CROSBY WILLS IT
Sidney Crosby wears the C but it was his A game that helped doom the Senators in Game 4.
Crosby led all players with five shots on goal, had a goal, assist, was plus one and a force throughout.
Sullivan fairly sang his praises afterward and again a day later.
“He was on the puck,” Sullivan said. “He was hard on the puck. He was making plays. He was defending hard, he was inspired. When he plays that way, he’s tough to handle and he inspires our group as well.”
Considering the Penguins were Cup champions last spring and Crosby led Canada to a World Cup of Hockey win in September, it’s remarkable No. 87 has this much gas left in the tank. Sullivan attributes Crosby’s energy to a high degree of fitness, combined with a will to win.
“He’s probably the fiercest competitor that I’ve been associated with in the game, and (Friday) night was an example of it,” Sullivan said. “He’s got an insatiable appetite to be the best. He has a drive and a will to win that, in my estimation, not too many people have. That’s what separates him from others.”
Not many can emulate Crosby’s skill level, but his coach feels Crosby’s “blue-collar” work ethic tends to rub off on younger players.
Given the wild swings of momentum in this back-and-forth series, anything is possible over the final best-of-three, with Pittsburgh holding home-ice advantage. Sullivan hopes his team’s energetic play will carry over into Game 5 but he can’t be certain. Losing teams have featured strong bounce-backs in the series.
“Each game tells its own story and you’ve got to be ready for whatever it throws at you,” Hagelin said.