Penguins start slowly but win big in first game following break
As Bryan Rust’s shot trickled through the equipment of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and skidded slowly toward the goal line, Conor Sheary broke out into a wide, toothy smile.
Perhaps he was smiling because he knew the goal he was about to score would kick-start his team’s offense into overdrive. More likely, he was grinning because he was about to poach a goal from a teammate and good friend.
Either way, Sheary scoring in the second period got the Penguins rolling, and they cruised to a 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday evening at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins have won five in a row and are 13-1-2 since Dec. 1.
“I think once we got our first goal, it was a huge boost for the team,” Sheary said. “We kind of rolled after that and were firing shots and getting a lot of pucks on them and getting pucks behind them. I think we played well after that.”
Coming off their bye week, the Penguins were a bit rusty in the early going.
Nothing too ugly. It’s not like they forgot how to play the game while being away thanks to a new NHL scheduling policy that gives every team a week’s vacation.
Their timing and execution was just a little off. In the first minute, for example, a pass into Sheary’s skates created a difficult defensive-zone clear. Two minutes later, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury dropped his stick, and Olli Maatta tripped on it as he skated around the net.
“I liked our energy. I liked our compete level,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought we were a little bit rusty passing the puck sometimes, but it wasn’t anything we didn’t expect.”
Early in the second period, Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead when a Victor Hedman shot from the left point ricocheted directly to the tape of Jonathan Drouin for a shot from the right faceoff circle into an essentially empty net.
The Penguins largely had shaken off the rust by then, but they were going to need an offensive response eventually.
It came about four minutes later. Rust took a pass from Sidney Crosby in the slot and fired a turnaround shot on goal that got through Vasilevskiy. There was little question it had enough momentum to cross the goal line, but Sheary wasn’t exactly in position to take a chance.
He slammed it into the back of the cage, thereby stealing a goal from Rust.
“I think tomorrow night, dinner might be on me,” Sheary said. “Other than that, it’s an instinct thing. When you see a puck laying there, you just want to make sure it goes in.”
Less than five minutes after Sheary tied the score 1-1, the duo of Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr struck for another important goal. They forced a turnover in the neutral zone and moved across the blue line on a two-on-one against Hedman. Fehr took Cullen’s pass and took a shot from the left side that slipped inside the near post to give the Penguins the lead for good.
It was satisfying for Cullen and Fehr, who had a Grade-A chance at a goal denied by an improbable Vasilevskiy glove save a few minutes earlier.
It was also indicative of the kind of balanced night the Penguins had offensively.
All four wingers from their bottom six — Chris Kunitz and Phil Kessel on the third line and Fehr and Scott Wilson on the fourth — scored.
“To have consistency, you need everyone chipping in,” Crosby said. “I think we have confidence in every group that goes out there. They can contribute. Whether they’re putting the puck in the net or being good defensively and responsible that way, as long as everyone’s contributing, that’s the biggest thing.”