UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The once-struggling Pittsburgh Penguins keep raising their level of urgency and piling up the points.
They did it again Monday, this time to win in a way they hadn’t this season.
Struggling early against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum and eventually falling into a one-goal hole in the second period, the Penguins found some chemistry and managed to squeeze out a 2-1 shootout win.
It was their first 2-1 win of the season and their fourth win in 12 games decided by one goal (4-2-6). It was their first win in three games decided in a shootout and their third win in nine games decided after regulation (3-6). The Penguins are 3-0-1 in their past four games.
“It should be a boost of confidence for us,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Our team, you look at this core group of players, they’re a battle-tested group. They’ve been in a lot of high-stakes games, been in a lot of close games on a big stage, but I think sometimes when you win games like this, especially with the way this early part of the season has gone for us, it’s evidence that if we play the game a certain way we can have success and it’s evidence that we have to play the game a certain way with a commitment level that is high from everybody on the bench in order to win.”
The Penguins didn’t seem to have that commitment level less than a month ago, when they were third from the bottom of the NHL standings with 18 points, a 7-8-4 record, after blowing a 4-1 lead and losing 5-4 in overtime at home against the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 19.
They’re 6-2-2 since. They’re a tiebreaker (ROW) away from being in a Stanley Cup Playoff position.
“I think we understand these points mean the same in 3-4 months,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think we understand that and we’ve played better because of it.”
In this 10-game stretch, they’ve won going away, like 5-1 against the Dallas Stars, 6-3 against the Colorado Avalanche and 6-2 against the Islanders.
Casey DeSmith, their new No. 1 goalie supplanting an injured Matt Murray, has been the difference in two of the wins. He made 37 saves, including 15 in the third period, in a 4-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 24. He made 25 saves Monday, including three in overtime, two with the Penguins on the penalty kill.
“I think everybody has been finding ways to win, finding ways to keep the puck out of our net and put the puck in their net instead of bad mistakes and finding ways to beat yourself almost,” DeSmith said. “We’ve definitely turned a corner.”
There is no better example than what they did against the Islanders on Monday.
The Penguins lost 2-1 in overtime twice in this 10-game stretch. Winning 2-1 in a shootout while going 4-for-4 on the penalty kill, including 1-for-1 with three blocked shots in overtime, is a big step.
“It’s easy to win a game 6-1 at home, it’s a lot harder to win a game 2-1 on the road in a building with a lot of energy, a lot of penalties, stuff like that,” DeSmith said. “It’s all stuff that goes into making a game challenging and I thought we did a great job battling all of that.”
It’s part of that urgency. It was clear the Penguins raised their level as the game wore on.
Sullivan pushed it by changing the lines after two periods. He promoted a struggling Derick Brassard, who was guilty of the turnover that led to the Islanders’ 1-0 lead in the second period, to play on the top line with Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
Brassard, who said he felt responsible for the Islanders’ goal, made up for it by scoring a gritty one from the doorstep at 2:13 of the third to tie the game at 1-1.
Their urgency showed up in overtime, when Brassard was in the penalty box for tripping Valtteri Filppula. Bryan Rust had a block and Zach Aston-Reese had two. DeSmith made two saves. The Penguins killed the penalty and got to the shootout, where Phil Kessel and Guentzel scored.
“They bailed me out,” Brassard said. “That was great to see them sacrifice their body on the penalty kill. I felt bad, but that’s what a team does.”
This way of battling back seems to be what the Penguins do. They went through almost the exact same thing last season too.
They were 11-10-3 through Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and 19-18-3 through New Year’s Day, three points out of a playoff position with just about half the season in the books.
They went 28-11-3 in their final 42 games, finished with 100 points, second in the Metropolitan Division.
“Our team in my experience in coaching them over the last few years, we tend to get better as the season goes on,” Sullivan said. “We tend to raise our level of commitment as the season goes on. We’re certainly going to need it moving forward.
“I think that’s the key to us getting to where we want to go.”