All things must come to an end, blah blah blah. The Pittsburgh Penguins came out a little flat early on the road against their most heated rival, and even though they temporarily righted the ship, you could just tell watching that, other than Marc-Andre Fleury, things were a little "off" tonight. You usually don’t win many games in the NHL when things are off, especially in a barn against a team like the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the first period, Penguin-killer Claude Giroux gathered a lose puck and was all alone from point-blank range to beat a stick-less Fleury. MAF lost said stick when trying to fish out the puck, and the Flyers pounced on him and took advantage of the Alex Goligoski – Deryk Engelland pairing that couldn’t bail the goalie out. It’d be a rare gaffe for Fleury on the night.
In the second period, Evgeni Malkin celebrated his return to the lineup with a monster slapper on the power play. A welcome sight to be sure, since for the past few games the PP has seemingly been the "Pass The Puck To Sid And See What He Does With It" show. The tie would be short-lived, however, as Nikolai Zherdev showed some fancy dangles and great patience to evade Brooks Orpik’s 2-on-1 defending and beat Fleury up high. 2-1 Flyers after two.
In the third period Malkin would again draw the Penguins even, scoring his 10th of the year and again on the power play. Philly would pull ahead for good, though, when Scott Hartnell battled with Orpik in front of the net, gained position and put a perfect tip on a Chris Pronger shot over Fleury’s head.
Some other thoughts on the streak-buster:
-Malkin was a beast in his return, scoring the Pens' two goals and accounting for almost 35% of the team’s total shots on goal (8 out of 23). But it was the guy he mainly replaced who’s absence showed. This game was meant for Chris Kunitz. Lots of energy, skating, checking, positioning. Kunitz has sort of been an after thought playing with Sidney Crosby, but it’s probably worth pointing out Crosby had one of his quietest games at even-strength in recent memory. Credit Pronger and Matt Carle? Sure. But the Pens team didn’t find their legs early in the game, and that’s one area where Kunitz shines.
-Also another repercussion of having Kunitz and Jordan Staal out of the lineup? Meet your new first line power play forward Matt Cooke!
-For only the second time since November 6th, Fleury gave up three goals. But don’t be confused, he was easily the Pens' best and most consistent player all night long, stopping 34 of 37 Philadelphia shots, including several big-time chances. Fleury played with confidence and aggression; he deserved a better fate on this night.
-Frustating. Brilliant. Emerging star. Prone to mistakes. Kris Letang brings no shortage of descriptions of his game, sometimes multiple ones on the same shift! He’s skating like the wind and playing physically, but he’ll be out of position here or there too. And at the end of the game he twice shot the puck high and wide that killed the offense when the puck went to the line and out once, and saved (barely) the other time by a lunging Malkin. Still, chalk a team-high 26:10 of ice-time up for Letang, with nine attempted shots (three on target), four hits, two giveaways and two takeaways.
-A lot of fans like the "buzz line" of Chris Conner, Mark Letestu and Tyler Kennedy. Tonight I thought they had an uneven night. Conner, to me, played perhaps his worst game of the season. He seemed ineffective and took a penalty in the second period just seconds after Malkin tied the game. Kennedy, however, had a better outing and was even rewarded with a few shifts with the Crosby-Malkin line. Early on it seemed like TK was the Pens best forward and about the only one moving his legs ... probably not a good sign.
-Speaking of not a good sign, the Pens were playing with fire all night. While the Pens were on a PP, Pronger pushed Cooke into the net after the whistle. It’s what Pronger does, you have to let it go. How did Cooke respond? By punching Pronger in the face. Brooks Orpik took a run at somebody named Darroll Powe when he ran Fleury, but luckily the refs only whistled the Flyer. Malkin tripped a guy and got called for it, then tripped another for good measure. All told, the Pens gave the Flyers six chances (and 10+ minutes) on the power play. Not a good recipe for success, and finally the PK betrayed them on the sixth and final time when Hartnell scored his game winner.
-One streak may be over, but another trudges on: Crosby recorded two assists on the night and tied his career high with a 19-game point streak. As mentioned, El Capitan had a quiet night for his lofty standards, but still rattled off 21:20, took a game high 25 faceoffs (winning 56% of them), with two hits, one takeaway and one blocked shot. Throw in the two assists and that’s a hell of a night for 99% of the league, but not Crosby, at least not recently.
-Finally, fans talk that having Crosby-Malkin together should be good to get Geno on the right track. But don’t forget about No. 87, who may be deferring too much, Sid was held without a shot on goal, the first game all season he hasn’t had at least one. In one instance, Crosby tried to force a backhand pass to Malkin on a 2-on-1 that Pronger put himself in a position to easily defend. It’s not a big-time concern, but definitely something to keep an eye on if the 87/71 connection stays in tact.
So that’s the streak. On one hand, a disappointing effort against a divisional opponent who’s now jumped the Pens for the points lead. On the other hand, the weight of the winning streak is over, which could be spun as a good thing for a team that has a big enough spotlight (and target) on its back already.
And the best news of all is the boys get the chance to wash the losing taste right out of their mouths tomorrow night when they get back at it against the New York Rangers. Surely NYR won’t be feeling sorry for the Pens now that their winning streak has come to an end, so now it’s time to salvage the week and head into the season high four-day break on a high note …
… And maybe even start a new streak in the process.