Monday, April 23, 2018

Less-than-perfect Pittsburgh Penguins 'embrace the struggle,' find ways to win

By Kevin Allen
April 22, 2018

Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins passes to Jake Guentzel #59 for a third period goal against Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Flyers 8-5 to win the series 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins were sloppy, undisciplined at times.

Goalie Matt Murray surrendered a weak goal that could have turned the series. The Penguins allowed Sean Couturier to generate a five-point game. The Penguins allowed the Philadelphia Flyers to build a two-goal lead.

Center Evgeni Malkin was out with a leg injury, and speedy Carl Hagelin was lost to a mid-game injury.

The Penguins had multiple reasons to lose to the Flyers in Game 6. Instead, Jake Guentzel scored four goals and added an assist to lead the Penguins to an 8-5 win that clinched their ninth consecutive NHL playoff series triumph.

Coach Mike Sullivan said Guentzel rises up when stakes are the highest.

“We have a team that does that,” Sullivan said in the postgame news conference. “They embrace adversity. They embrace the struggle. Our team doesn’t get rattled. They embrace the challenge.”

The gritty, hard-fought win was a case study of why the Penguins have won 36 playoff games over the past 25 months.

The Penguins are a skilled, fast team, to be sure. But what separates the Penguins from other quality teams in their understanding of how to win games in a variety of ways. The Penguins believe it takes a village to win a playoff game.

They find ways to win, even in games when they don’t play their best hockey. This was not one of the Penguins' most impressive efforts. This game will be remembered for Guentzel’s four goals, but the real reason the Penguins are advancing - and the Flyers are not - is the Penguins found a way to make needed plays at critical moments.

After giving up a soft goal to Scott Laughlin to allow the Flyers to take a 4-2 lead, Murray made some big saves when it mattered most.

When Philadelphia star Claude Giroux leveled Hagelin with a high, heavy hit, Phil Kessel went after Giroux. To many, that would be viewed as undisciplined act. But to Pittsburgh players, it was Kessel reminding that they had to rise up if they wanted to avoid a Game 7.

The third period belonged to the Penguins because they don’t panic in important games.

When Brian Dumoulin picked up a delay of game penalty early in the third period, the Penguins killed off the power play with impressive efficiency.

The Flyers are still learning how to win in the playoffs, and the Penguins knew how to take advantage of the Flyers’ lack of experience. Every time the Flyers committed a turnover, the Penguins found a way to make them pay.

The Penguins limited the Flyers to seven shots on goal in the third period, and a couple of those came after they had built a sizable lead.

Sullivan offered no report on Malkin. It’s unknown how long the Russian star will be out. But the Penguins know from experience that losing Malkin can be overcome if everyone strives to make the right play at the right time.

Not every team can thrive when it loses a player of Malkin's caliber or on a day when it isn't playing its best. But this Penguins can. They have proved that over the past two years when they won two Stanley Cups.

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