Brian Strait knocked out. Joe Vitale high sticked. Brent Johnson bent backwards. None of it mattered last night as even injuries couldn’t ruin derail a Penguins victory.
Johnson was stellar in his third start of the year. He stopped 24 of 26 shots to earn his fourth career victory over the Minnesota Wild. The match marked Pittsburgh’s most complete game of the year as they registered the first goal, a powerplay goal, and a shorthanded goal.
Players who had previously skated unnoticed showed up in the second night of back-to-back contests. Chris Kunitz is one forward who places in that list.
As I stated yesterday, Kunitz is a player who more embodies Matt Cooke than James Neal in terms of talent. He should not be expected to create offense on his own. Last night, his goal followed typical Cooke protocol:
- Provide pressure on forecheck.
- Force turnover.
- Score goal off turnover.
Kunitz’s active stick and relentlessness on the defensive side of the puck can be thanked for the scoring opportunity. After he deflected a poor pass his powerful shot and ability to get open did the rest—these are two area’s where Kunitz never had trouble.
Of course, Kunitz’s goal would not have been possible without Pascal Dupuis. The former Wild forward played his best game of the season last night. Dupuis was patient, dogged on defense, and a shooting machine. He led the Penguins with six blasts. Duper is at his best when he is out of the scrum and in open space. Minnesota gave him plenty of that space last night.
Special teams took control after Pittsburgh’s first marker. The Penguins stayed perfect on the road, killing all five minors and even recording a shorthanded goal. Before Dupuis cashed in on the disadvantage though, it was Jordan Staal posting his third goal of the year on the powerplay.
The Penguins have struggled on the man-advantage without Evgeni Malkin. One of the reasons why is because they have abandoned the umbrella formation with a shooter in the high slot. Last night, Dan Bylsma and the Pens reverted back to the system. It paid off as Neal created opportunities from the position all night long and was the source of much attention when Staal potted the PP tally.
Staal’s goal was his second in three games. After much criticism for a slow start no. 11 has heated up offensively. Oddly enough though, Staal has become increasingly careless in the defensive zone. His coverage is still tight, but turnovers are a problem. He is second on the team with four giveaways. It should be noted that last night marked his sixth consecutive game of 20+ minutes of ice time. At some point he will need a rest.
Neal followed Staal’s goal with a snipe of his own. The opportunity was created by sound defense from Vitale and Arron Asham. A simple look-off to the right created enough time for Neal to slip a wrister under Niklas Backstrom’s pads. What his shot lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in power. Still, he has hit the net with frequency this season. His 19 missed shots lead the Penguins by double digits but his 18.7% shooting click is third best on the team.
One concerning issue is that Neal has scored more goals and posted more points in October than any other month during the season through his career. Countering that point is the fact that he has hit the net with regularity this season and distributed the puck with accuracy. Add in that Neal has looked spectacular with Malkin and it is safe to assume the 2011-12 version of Neal is the authentic one.
Cooke also played a strong game against the Wild. He was responsible for springing Dupuis on the shorthanded goal and made quick decisions with the puck all night long.
If there is any doubt that Cooke has changed, last night is a perfect example to draw from. Minnesota hit hard and often. Many of those blasts were on Cooke. More than a few of them were high or cheap. Yet, Cooke held his composure and even seemed to play better as the game went on. Most fans point to the absence of superstars as the reason for last year’s playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But, if Cooke was in the lineup, I doubt Pittsburgh would have spoiled a 3-1 series lead. He is that valuable to this team.
The Penguins were dominant all game long last night. They recorded their third shorthanded goal in just the team’s eighth game. Last year—when they finished second in the NHL in shorthanded goals—they didn’t tally a third shorty until November 17th.
Johnson once again proved why he is the best backup in the NHL and the Penguins played with the heart the lacked in Winnipeg.