Empty Thoughts: Penguins 5, Rangers 4 (OT)

Observations from the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime win against the Rangers:

First things first – and boy has that been typed way too often in this space – there was no update on Kris Letang after the game. He left the game at 10:15 of the first period. On a fairly mundane play, he appeared to get dinged up while making light contact with Rangers defenseman Adam Fox in the Penguins’ left corner.

Letang became the sixth Penguins’ defenseman to fall to injury this season. His fairly early departure left a really threadbare crew to finish this game.

Just look at the players the Penguins used on defense in Letang’s absence:

P.O Joseph – The rookie led the game with 25:58 of ice time. And he looked like he was in total control of the game anytime he had the puck. The maturity and focus that he displays give off the impression that he’s been in the NHL for five years instead of just five games. He finished with three assists, all primary helpers.

John Marino – In his second season, Marino has looked frazzled at times while taking on a larger role and having to play his off side more often than not. On 31 shifts, he logged 26:03 of ice time – the second-highest total of his career.

Cody Ceci – A classic “second chancer” signed by former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford this past offseason, Ceci was trotted out against the Rangers’ top forwards for much of this game and ended up with some positive possession numbers. Furthermore, he had a direct role in the game-tying goal during the third period.

Chad Ruhwedel – An NHLer since 2013, albeit disjointedly, Ruhwedel clocked 22:52 of ice time on 28 shifts, the third-higest total in his career. With Letang down, he was the veteran of this group in terms of service time as a member of the Penguins with only 145 games.

Yannick Weber – The Penguins signed this guy off the street – or interstate, more accurately – on Wednesday. Unable to secure a more timely flight to Boston to join the team for its game on Thursday, he opted to drive from Nashville – he was previously a member of the Predators – to Pittsburgh then drive to Boston. But a snowstorm marooned him in Kentucky for a day and forced him to join the team in New York on Friday. After 16 hours in a car, he jumped onto the ice with the Penguins after nothing more than a morning skate at Madison Square Garden. He wasn’t great by any means. In fact, he was on the ice for two goals against. But considering the dire circumstances, he handled his business fairly well, logging 12:02 of ice time on 15 shifts.

This patchwork crew of misfits helped the Penguins stage another comeback and snap a two-game losing streak.

No coach wants to use injuries as an excuse. And Penguins coach Mike Sullivan subscribes so heartily to the “next man up” cliche, he might have a copyright on it.

But what do you do when you’re on your sixth next man up with the blue line?

“Simplifying the game and helping one another on both sides of the puck in all three zones I think is critical in this particular time,” Sullivan said via video conference.

”We’ve got to help one another in all three zones. Recognizing when our defensemen are under pressure, for example, on the breakout, we’ve got to get back, provide short options. We’ve got to cut our skating down. We can’t just play in constant motion. We might have to stop and present ourselves for a short option. Or we might have to stop in a support position to help in the event that we turn the puck over or our opponents gain possession. A lot of the message has been simplicity on both sides of the puck in all three zones.”

What happened

The Penguins struck first at 7:39 of the first period. Stealing a puck off Rangers forward Artemi Panarin, Penguins forward Kasperi Kapanen drove play from his own zone through the neutral zone and gained the offensive blue line on the right wing. Holding up a bit in the right circle, Kapanen fed a seam pass to Joseph in the left circle. Joseph snapped off a shot/pass to the right of the crease where forward Jason Zucker was able to deflect the puck past goaltender Alexandar Georgiev’s left skate for his second goal of the season. Joseph and Kapanen netted assists.

Things were tied, 1-1, at 13:52 of the first period. After a neutral zone turnover by Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux gained the Penguins’ zone on the left wing and left a pass for Rangers forward Phillip Di Giuseppe who lifted a wrister off the left half wall. Goaltender Casey DeSmith made the initial save but spit out a rebound to the top of the crease. Lemieux crashed the net, dragging Weber and Marino with him. Through that chaos, the puck slid inside the left post and into the cage for Lemieux’s first goal. Assists went to Di Giuseppe and defenseman Ryan Lindgren.

The Penguins reclaimed a lead, 2-1, at 19:20 of the first. Off a faceoff win by Penguins forward Teddy Blueger in New York’s left circle, Joseph controlled the puck at the left point and faked a shot that jammed up Di Giuseppe and moved him out of position. With a new shooting lane formed, Joseph pumped a wrister at the cage. Penguins forward Brandon Tanev darted through the left circle and deflected the puck through Georgiev’s five hole for his third goal. Joseph and Blueger collected assists.

A short-handed goal off a two-on-none rush tied the game again, 2-2, at 7:20 of the second period. After gaining the offensive zone on the right wing, Penguins forward Bryan Rust lost the puck at the right point. Marino made an ill-timed pinch to claim it but Rangers forward Ryan Strome backhanded it past Marino to the neutral zone, allowing Rangers forward Kevin Rooney and defenseman K’Andre Miller to create the two-on-none sequence. Approaching the net off the left wing, Rooney dealt a pass to Miller in the right circle. Miller then one-touched it back to Rooney who tapped in his first goal past the right skate of a helpless DeSmith. Assists went to Miller and Strome.

A breakaway goal at 9:20 of the second gave the Penguins another lead, 3-2. A pass attempt by Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith from the Penguins’ left point was intercepted by Malkin above the left circle. As Kapanen took off up ice, Malkin snapped off a stretch pass, springing him on a breakaway. Attacking the net, Kapanen lifted a wrister over Georgiev’s glove for his second goal. The lone assist was recorded by Malkin.

New York persisted, tying things again, 3-3, at 10:25 of the second. After Rangers forwards Kaapo Kakko and Chris Kreider won a puck battle in the Penguins’ right corner against Blueger and Ruhwedel, Kreider fed a pass to the right point for Miller. Surveying the zone for a moment, Miller slid a pass to the left point where Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba whacked a one-timer on net. DeSmith made the initial save but coughed up a rebound to the left of the cage. Kreider was Johnny-on-the-spot and cleaned up the garbage with a forehand shot for his third goal. Assists were credited to Trouba and Miller.

The Rangers took their first lead at 16:01 of the second with a power-play score. Controlling play at center point, Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo slid a pass to Panarin above the right circle. Panarin moved the puck below the circle to Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich. Waiting a moment for things to open up, Buchnevich gave the puck back to the top of the right circle for Panarin who blasted a one-timer through a phalanx of bodies and past DeSmith’s blocker on the far side for his fourth goal. Assist were collected by Buchnevich and DeAngelo.

The Penguins’ top line got involved at 9:18 of the third. After Penguins forward Sidney Crosby beat Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad on a draw in the Rangers’ left circle, Marino settled the puck at the left point and fed a pass to Ceci on the right point. Waiting for a lane to open up, Ceci moved up slightly on the right wall and lifted a wrister on net. Penguins forward Jake Guentzel was positioned above the crease and redirected the shot on net but was denied by Georgiev. Sticking with the play, Guentzel chopped the rebound with a backhander that fluttered over Georgiev’s glove for his third goal. Ceci and Marino had assists.

In overtime, the Penguins controlled possession for the most part and claimed victory. Taking a pass from Crosby above the Rangers’ right circle, Joseph dealt it back to Crosby in the high slot. Curling to his right, Crosby used DeAngelo as a screen and snapped a wrister through Georgiev’s five hole for his fourth goal. Joseph and Rust netted assists.

Statistically speaking

• The Penguins led in shots, 38-34.

• Guentzel led the game with seven shots.

• Kreider led the Rangers with five shots.

• The only skaters who failed to record a shot were Letang, Penguins forward Mark Jankowski, DeAngelo and Rangers forward Brett Howden.

• As mentioned earlier, Joseph led the game with 25:58 of ice time on 33 shifts.

• Fox led the Rangers with 24:59 of ice time on 31 shifts.

• The Penguins controlled faceoffs, 31-23 (57 %).

• Crosby was 11 for 15 (73 %).

• Zibanejad was 10 for 23 (43 %).

• Marino led the game with three blocked shots.

• Fox, Lemieux, Miller and Trouba each led the Rangers with two blocked shots.

Randomly speaking

• In a lot of ways, the Penguins won this game in the third period. They dominated possession and led in shots during the period, 16-7. To borrow a Sullivan-ism, they played the right way and really had the Rangers on the run for 20 minutes. They only got one goal in the third but that probably wasn’t a true reflection on how they controlled the period.

• Blueger offered another honest, efficient effort by winning six of 12 faceoffs, recording an assist and being a stout presence on the penalty kill. Perhaps his most notable contribution to this game came at the end of the second period. With the Rangers on a power play, he drew a cross checking minor with eight seconds remaining in the middle frame and eliminated the possibility of the Rangers opening the third period with a man advantage opportunity on fresh ice. That set the stage for the Penguins to control the third.

• Slowly but surely, Kapanen is starting to make a bigger impact on the Penguins. His speed and forechecking really provides a bolt of energy for this team when he offers it. Plus his zone entries have led to a handful of goals, including one in this contest. In six games, he has five points (two goals, three assists).

• By no stretch did Malkin offer anything that would go towards a campaign to win the Hart Memorial Trophy, but his pass to set up Kapanen’s breakaway was one of his better offensive plays – from admittedly few candidates – of the season.

• The power play has really hit the skids for the Penguins over the past three games as it has gone 0 for 13 over that span. As if that futility wasn’t enough, they’ve allowed two short-handed goals during this slump.

Letang’s absence didn’t help matters, but the power play stunk this week even when he was able-bodied.

• The Penguins have allowed two short-handed goals through nine games this season. They allowed only five such goals in 69 games last season.

• The Penguins have dressed 11 defensemen already in only nine games this season. The franchise record is 15. That mark was established in the 2000-01 season and matched in 2002-03.

• That fake shot by Joseph on Tanev’s goal was just nasty. That looked like something a 12-year veteran would have done.

• DeSmith’s rebounds left something to be desired. He spit out some big ones on the goals by Lemieux and Kreider. But he was adequate for some very dire circumstances.

• Penguins forward Jared McCann drew a tripping minor in the second period and that’s certainly always helpful to the greater good. But beyond that, he was Guy Incognito in this game.

• Ditto Jankowski. After a strong start to his season, he’s really been hard to notice.

• Colton Sceviour was scratched in favor of Sam Lafferty. It’s not certain if that was a coach’s decision or if something else such as an injury led to that change. Regardless, it would be a stretch to say Lafferty made any kind of notable impact.

• The Rangers are a fun team to watch. They trade chances and try to outscore the opposition. That’s to say they don’t play much defense. It’s difficult to say that approach will bear fruit as far as wins or a playoff berth, but it’s entertaining.

• The Rangers lost forward Colin Blackwell to an undisclosed injury early in the first period when he left the ice at the 10:43 mark.

Historically speaking

• Malkin overlapped a few key figures in Penguins history in a statistical sense it his game.

First, Malkin (916 games) surpassed forward Mario Lemieux (915) for second place on the franchise’s career games list.

Second, Malkin (1,080 points) surpassed forward Jaromir Jagr (1,079) for third place on the franchise’s career scoring list.

• Weber became the 24th player to wear No. 3 for the Penguins. His predecessors:

Al MacNeil, John Arbour, Bob Woytowich, Tim Horton, Jack Lynch, Ron Stackhouse, Bennett Wolf, Norm Schmidt, Doug Bodger, Jim Kyte, Jim Paek, Grant Jennings, Sergei Zubov, Stefan Bergkvist, Dan Trebil, Marc Bergevin, Jamie Pushor, Steve Poapst, Mark Eaton, Alex Goligoski, Douglas Murray, Olli Maatta, Jack Johnson

• Weber became the second native of Switzerland to play for the Penguins. The first was defenseman Mark Streit.

• Joseph became the ninth rookie defenseman in franchise history to record three or more points in a game:

• At 2:19, Marino was penalized for playing without a helmet. His lid was knocked off during a scuffle and instead of going to the bench, as the rules dictate, he stayed on the ice. That’s a relatively new rule the NHL instituted in the 2019 offseason in the name of preventing head injuries. He is believed to be the first player in franchise history to record that infraction.

• The Penguins snapped a three-game losing streak against the Rangers for contests that were determined in overtime. Their last overtime win against the Rangers was a 5-4 triumph at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 17, 2017. Malkin scored the winning goal in that contest.

• DeSmith (24 wins) surpassed Dunc Wilson (23) for 23rd place on the franchise’s career goaltending win list.

Publicly speaking

• Crosby on the shift that led to the winning goal in overtime:

“We just had some good pressure there for a couple of shifts. We were playing against tired guys. We were just trying to find some openings to get good shots, whether it was taking it to the net or getting a shot from a good area. I didn’t get all of it but I was just glad to see it go in. It was just good pressure from every line that was out there.”

• Crosby explained what’s different when the defensive corps is so beat up:

“Everyone is just trying to communicate. You just try to be smart with decisions and managing the puck. Unfortunately, we’ve had to deal with this right from the start of the season basically. We’ve handled it the right way when we’ve been in those situations and tried to simplify things. We get on our toes like that in the third period, even with a shortened bench, that’s when we’re at our best. We did a really good job of playing forward and making sure we got good (offensive) zone time.”

• Crosby dissected the power play’s malfunctions:

“It’s just execution. We’re well prepared. We understand what we need to do. We’ve just got to find a way to execute and make sure that we have the same level of compete that the penalty kill that we’re playing against has. That’s such a big part of the power play. You get out there sometimes and obviously, you’re excited. You want to work the puck around. You want to use your skill. But I think we’ve got to make sure that we understand that our work ethic sets the tone for everything. Making sure that we’re quick to get to pucks, loose pucks, turn pucks over if we need to, be strong on them. It starts with that.”

• Kapanen on his play:

“I’m getting a bigger role here and getting more responsibility in the offensive zone. That’s something I feel like every player enjoys. So far, I think I’ve played well and my linemates have been helping me out. We’ve been playing well. This is a big two points for us today.”

• Joseph credited his coaches and teammates for helping him transition into the NHL:

“It’s not only the coaching staff, it’s the players as well. There’s a lot of players that have been in the league for a long time. They know what it’s like. The message is pretty simple. Just having fun out there and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

• Sullivan on Joseph:

“P.O had a great game. He was competing defensively. He has great offensive instincts. You can see … some of the plays that he makes. We used him on the power play, he makes some real nice outlet passes, under pressure. We believe this kid is going to get better and better. He’s a real good player. He’s a great kid. He’s got an insatiable appetite for the game. We can see him improving right in front of our eyes with every minute that he plays out there. Tonight, we go down to five defensemen so early in the game. I think he played close to (26) minutes tonight … which for a young player in this league is an exorbitant amount of minutes. And he handled it extremely well. We’re really excited about P.O. He’s a good player. We knew he was real close coming into this year and he’s earning his time. Tonight, I think might have been his best game of the season for us when we needed it when we went down to five (defensemen) so early in the game.”

• Sullivan was high on Ceci as well:

“Cody’s been good for us since we’ve put him back in the lineup. I think he’s getting more comfortable with how we’re trying to play. He has a better understanding of what role he’s going to play for our team and what the expectations are from the coaching staff. He’s a good pro. He’s played a whole lot of games in this league. He understands what the league’s all about and he plays within himself. I think Cody’s gotten better with each game that he’s played. Obviously, we need him at this particular tim•e when we’re as banged up as we are at that position. He’s playing some valuable, important minutes for us.”

• Crosby lauded Joseph’s maturity:

“It’s just all the details. Defensively, he’s got a good stick. He makes a lot of good reads. Gets pucks through from the point. Those are all little details that take adjusting to. But I think he’s gained confidence with every game. Been kind of thrown into the situation based on our (injury) situation. Sometimes when you’re thrown into scenarios like that, you don’t think as much. You can see with every game, he’s gotten better and better. He had another great game tonight. He was good defensively and created a lot offensively as well.”

• Rangers coach David Quinn lauded the Penguins for being much better than his squad:

“They were smarter. Looked like a little hungrier team than we were in the third period. They just won a lot of foot races to loose pucks. They won battles. We were very soft around our net. … We haven’t said that an awful lot throughout the season. But it certainly was the case in the third period. Give (the Penguins) a ton of credit. They upped the ante in the third period and we weren’t able to match it.”

• Kreider ripped his team pretty good after the game:

“No team in the league can just throw their sticks out there and play east-west and try to skill their way to wins. You’ve got to go north at some point. There’s not enough space, there’s not enough time. You’ve got to make their (defensemen) turn. You’ve got to make them cope. It’s the old cliche, go 200 feet. When we’re turning pucks over at the lines, turning pucks over in the neutral zone, not making them dig pucks out of corners … that looked like a lot of fun for (the Penguins) in the third period. “

Visually speaking

Game summary.

Event summary.

• Highlights:

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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