There is no substitute for speed and hockey is, in many ways, based upon this principal. Games are generally won and lost in the neutral zone with speed being the deciding factor. Nearly every defensive system is based around the concept of slowing the opposing team in the neutral zone. This prevents them from pushing the defensemen back at the blueline, which is done to open space high in the zone, and often forces the opposing team to dump the puck in and give up possession. Then, of course, it becomes a game of will and determination and this is why I love hockey. No sport better combines skill, toughness and sheer blue collar hard work than hockey. Offense often starts with speed, is sustained through hard work and then completed with skill. It's the NHL trifecta.
This was on grand display last night in the Pittsburgh Penguins Tampa Bay Lightning game as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Crew traded speed-based punches with Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St Louis and the rest of the Lightning. The game was back and forth with both teams generating tremendous speed in the neutral zone. The Lightning seemed to have the advantage through the first two periods, especially in the second where they out shot the Penguins 14-4 and generally kept them on their heels. St Louis and Lecavalier are obviously incredibly skilled players and their ability to pass the puck in stride and on-the-tap enabled the Tampa Bay offense to generate and maintain speed through the neutral zone and make guys like Hal Gill wish they’d gone to a power skating workshop when they were kids. The Penguins were also caught chasing the puck around in their own zone on multiple occasions, with Tampa's low puck cycling wreaking havoc on the Penguins defense, but the biggest X factor in professional sports, goaltending, would eventually determine the victor as the game went into the third tied 0-0.
The Penguins, settling for the occasional counterpunch through the first two periods and failing to capitalize on multiple breakaways by Malkin and Crosby, finally found their legs in the third. An interesting line combination for the Penguins would ultimately score the game's first goal as Maxime Talbot skated up the wing and dropped the puck back to a streaking Crosby just inside the blueline and before heading to the net. Sidney, playing his first game in about 6 weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain when he crashed into the boards feet first, protected the puck on his backhand, gave a subtle fake as though he was going to wheel on the forehand back to the point and then showed the explosiveness that he is known for as he gained position on the defensemen and made a stretching, somewhat diving backhand pass into the slot. The puck was slowed slightly when it hit a Lightning defenseman’s foot, but it wasn’t enough to it and Talbot found the puck out front and slid it under the right pad of the sprawling, newly acquired Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith. This was a devastating goal for the Lightning as they had seemingly dominated most of the game, got a great performance from Mike Smith but couldn’t solve Pittsburgh’s netminder.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was flat out brilliant in only his second start since returning from a severe high ankle sprain that kept him out of the lineup for nearly 3 months. One key to being a successful goaltender in the National Hockey League, seeing as how no one stops them all, is being able to make the key saves at the right times. Being able to preserve your team’s momentum, bail them out of tough situations and damage the other team’s morale and intensity with timely saves are what separate the hall of fame goaltenders from everyone else. This is exactly what Marc-Andre Fleury did last night as he was able to stop Lecavalier, the reigning Maurice Richard Trophy winner, on a breakaway and made save after save, keeping the score even and the Penguins alive. The Lightning made a big final push to tie the game at the end, but it wasn’t to be. Malone and Gonchar hogtied a Lightning forward going to the net, clearly a missed call, which allowed a Pittsburgh defenseman to bounce the puck off the boards up to Malkin who would close his scoring race with Alexander Ovechkin to one point with an open net goal at the 19:55 mark and sends the Pens to a 2-0 victory.
Pascal Dupuis, acquired along with the quickly injured Marian Hossa in the deadline deal that sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, first round draft pick Angelo Esposito and a 1st round pick to Atlanta, continues to play a prominent role with his new team. Not only was he accredited an assist on the game winning goal, but he also logged nearly 18 minutes in ice time. While he failed to register a shot on goal, he was instrumental in killing three Lightning powerplays and generally played the kind of solid defensive game that the Penguins need him to play every night. Dupuis has a goal and an assist in 4 games since coming to Pittsburgh, but it’s his defensive play that makes him an asset right now. Marian Hossa should be back within 7 days and then the Penguins may be healthy for the first time in a long time. Of course, Jordan Staal, who’s been playing some of his best hockey of the season, left after playing only 4:52 with what is being reported as bruised ribs. Hopefully it won’t force him to miss any time, but the Penguins haven’t had much luck with that this year. Regardless, the Penguins continue to roll with the punches, overcome adversity and push to finish with the top seed in the East.
Update: Jordan Staal practiced with the team today and will most likely play tomorrow night.