Young defensemen lift Penguins to win
Evgeni Malkin is just fine. Apparently the Penguins' blue line is, too.
Malkin scored a sensational goal, and the Penguins defensive corps, minus its three longest-tenured players, put on a clinic in a 2-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday.
Playing without Brooks Orpik (concussion), Paul Martin (broken leg) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle), the Penguins received strong efforts from youngsters like Simon Despres, Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo, which nearly propelled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to his fourth shutout of the season.
Moments after Fleury came inches from scoring into an empty net for his first career goal, the Blue Jackets scored to pull within one. But the Penguins closed the deal.
“The way our defensemen played tonight,” Fleury said, “shows the kind of depth that we have.”
While Columbus enjoyed a significant puck possession advantage in the first period and fired 33 shots at Fleury, few of his saves came against legitimate opportunities.
Rather, the defensemen displayed strong positional play throughout and overcame their forwards turning the puck over with frequency. Sidney Crosby, in fact, was charged with three turnovers.
But the Penguins blue line didn't budge, and one of those defensemen seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Despres sounds like a player on a mission.
It remains unknown whether Despres will stick in the NHL once the Penguins blue line gets healthy — coach Dan Bylsma called him a “top-four defenseman” last summer only to exile him to Wilkes-Barre before the preseason had concluded — but he sounds like a guy who thinks Despres belongs, even if he acknowledges his opinion is irrelevant.
“I know I'm an NHL player,” Despres said. “I can play at this level. There are a lot of good defensemen here. It doesn't matter what I think.”
Plenty of Penguins are impressed with how Despres has played, including a player who watched him in Wilkes-Barre for much of this season.
“The guy is impressive,” forward Jayson Megna said. “He was one of the best guys on the ice every night in Wilkes-Barre, and, honestly, he's been pretty darn good here as well. You can see the confidence boost he has right now.”
Maatta was impressive, too, as he continues to play on the top pairing with Kris Letang. Maatta led a rush and received an assist when Crosby crashed to the net and was credited with his 16th goal of the season in the third period. Maatta played 19:40 and was a plus-1.
“That play with Olli coming out of the D-zone,” Bylsma said. “That was a big play for us.”
Earlier in the game, Malkin made a big play of his own. Having missed the previous two games because of an unknown injury, Malkin produced a burst of speed, blowing past defenseman Fedor Tyutin before depositing a shot over goalie Curtis McElhinney to give the Penguins a lead they'd never relinquish.
This night, though, belonged to the defense.
“Sometimes you need to grind games out like this,” Megna said. “It felt good.”
“Simon, Kris and Olli had to play under some tough conditions,” Bylsma said. “They did well.”