During the Dan Bylsma era, Penguins fans are accustomed to seeing the home team post some gaudy numbers on the CONSOL Energy Center shot clock. However, while preparing his charges for Tuesday night’s clash with Western Conference titan Detroit, the Pens’ coach opted to tighten things up a bit.
Indeed, for two periods the contest contained all the intrigue of a Grandmasters chess match. In the end, the Red Wings played Bobby Fischer to the Pens’ Boris Spassky and skated away with a crisp 4-1 victory.
Taking a page from ex-Devils coach Jacques Lemaire’s book, the undermanned Penguins effectively clogged the neutral zone during the first 20 minutes while limiting the powerful Red Wings to eight shots on goal. The slow-down strategy paid off in the closing seconds of the period when Brooks Orpik blocked a shot in front of his net. James Neal corralled the loose puck and tossed it up the boards to Evgeni Malkin. Geno, who was a game-time decision to play, swooped into the Detroit zone and beat Jimmy Howard with a sizzling wrister to the blocker side.
“He played extremely well tonight,” teammate Steve Sullivan said. “He had a lot of good chances to score. He really gave us a chance to win. It was nice to see him play like that.”
Malkin nearly struck again early in the second period. The high-flying Russian shot the puck off the left post, and then dove headlong to the ice and nearly jabbed the carom past Howard. Meanwhile, his tight-checking teammates continued to manacle the Red Wings, who steadfastly refused to play a dump-and-chase game.
Despite the Pens’ persistence, Detroit evened the score on their third shot of the period, thanks to a nice bit of teamwork by their top line. Hulking Todd Bertuzzi banged Matt Niskanen off the puck with a heavy check and fed Pavel Datsyuk at the edge of the left face-off circle. The Motor City magician cut across the slot and whipped a backhander past Marc-Andre Fleury at 16:01.
Pittsburgh came within inches of retaking the lead in the opening minute of the final period. However, another Malkin missile rang harmlessly off the post. Aided by a questionable holding call to Niskanen, Detroit went up 2-1 at 5:15 when Johan Franzen beat Fleury for his league-best ninth power-play goal of the season.
Flower kept the black and gold in the hunt with a spectacular standup save on Valtteri Filppula’s breakaway attempt. But at 15:36 ex-Pen Chris Conner eluded rookie Simon Despres on a 2-on-1 and found Dan Cleary in the slot with a pretty pass. The Newfoundland native steered the puck past Fleury to give the Wings an insurmountable 3-1 edge. Cleary scored into an empty net with six seconds left to cap off an impressive win for Detroit.
“That’s a really good team,” Malkin said. “And we just made a couple of mistakes.”
Malkin (a goal) paced the Pens with a game-high nine shots … Jordan Staal returned to the lineup after missing Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury … The Penguins are 12-8-3 without Sidney Crosby … The Pens out-shot Detroit 26-24 … Pittsburgh was 0-4 on the power play (18 percent on the season) … Former Red Wing Jason Williams was recalled from Wilkes-Barre … Robert Bortuzzo, Crosby, Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Steve MacIntyre, Zbynek Michalek, Richard Park, and Brian Strait were scratches.
The Penguins (17-10-4) travel north of the border to take on Ottawa (14-13-4) Friday night. The Pens beat the Senators 6-3 in Pittsburgh on November 25.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.