Sidney Crosby had a choice. He could’ve taken the day off after jetting from Los Angeles, where he helped pace the Metropolitan Division to victory in last weekend’s NHL All-Star game. Standard procedure for most participants. Or he could join his teammates for a Monday afternoon practice.
Sid chose the latter.
His black-and-gold teammates had a choice, too. Continue with the hot-and-cold play that produced an indifferent January. Or strive to regain the form that led to a Stanley Cup last spring.
Fortunately, the Pens followed their captain’s lead. Riding an impassioned two-goal effort by Patric Hornqvist and a strong 37-save performance by Matt Murray, the Pens tamed the Nashville Predators last night before a capacity crowd at PPG Paints Arena.
No easy feat, given that Peter Laviolette’s crew was 7-1-1 in their past nine.
Displaying improved attention to detail, the black and gold rallied to even the score at 1-1 late in the first period on a hustle goal by Chris Kunitz. Trevor Daley smoked Preds goalie Pekka Renne with a wicked slap shot high to the glove side three minutes into the second period to open the floodgates.
Then Hornqvist took charge. Reunited with Crosby, the game’s No. 1 star struck twice against his former team within a five-minute span, including a power-play goal at 16:12 of the second frame. Murray stopped 14 of 15 shots in the final period to seal the 4-2 victory.
Not that the Pens were perfect. They yielded 39 shots on goal and blocked 20 more. They were trounced in the faceoff circle, losing a staggering 63 percent of the draws. And the penalty kill—seventh worst in the league at 78.6 percent—remains a sore spot.
While acknowledging the game was “a little bit of a mixed bag,” Pens coach Mike Sullivan seemed pleased.
“Halfway through the game, I think we gave up 12 shots,” he noted. “So I think that aspect of the game we really liked. … The chances we gave up, they seemed to come in flurries. But a lot of the game, we certainly made a step in the right direction.”
The Pens were feisty, too, battling the Predators tooth and nail. When hulking Mattias Ekholm crosschecked Nick Bonino in front of the Nashville net, “Bones” was quick to respond. Kris Letang, playing his first game in two weeks, waded into Calle Jarnkrok after absorbing a gloved punch to the face, igniting a late-game scrum.
Hopefully our guys can bottle some of that snarl. On Friday night they clash with Columbus on home ice in what figures to be a passionate Metro Division tussle. The Blue Jackets embarrassed us, 7-1, back in December.
The following night the Pens travel to St. Louis to take on the Blues, a club that recently ground us into dust.
Still, if the Pens can duplicate last night’s effort, I like our chances.
Recent call up Carter Rowney made his NHL debut last night. Opening the game in Evgeni Malkin’s spot on the second line, the 27-year-old rookie played a shade over nine minutes and registered two hits and a minus-1.
In 26 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Sexsmith, Alberta native had 10 goals and 11 assists.
Letang returned to the lineup after missing the past six games with a left-knee injury. Revealing no lingering effects, “Tanger” logged a team high 23:45 of ice time and was a plus-2.
Murray started in his eighth straight game in net.
Conor Sheary will be out four-to-six weeks, the Penguins announced today. The spunky forward suffered an upper-body injury against the Predators last night.
“That’s a tough one for us,” Sullivan said. “He’s been a real good player for us.”
Sheary is third on the team in goals (17) and tied for fourth in points (35). He leads all Pens with an impressive average of 3.13 points per 60 minutes.
In related news, Matt Cullen practiced with the team today. He’s missed the past six games with a foot injury. Malkin continues to skate on his own, but did not participate in today’s practice.