Empty Thoughts: Panthers 4, Penguins 2
Observations from the Penguins’ 4-2 loss to the Panthers.
SUNRISE, Fla. — Accountability is a word that gets tossed around a lot by coaches or players when looking for a cliche to lean on.
It’s a kind of empty phrase they can lean on when looking for an easy way to answer a lame question from an uncreative reporter.
It’s one thing to speak of it.
It’s another to actually practice it.
Matt Murray and Zach Aston-Reese each did after Tuesday’s game.
Both players shouldered the blame for the defeat which came in a fairly even, albeit tepid, battle between the Penguins and Panthers.
Neither team really raced the other out of the building or overwhelmed with sustained pressure in the offensive zone. The Panthers just happened to get a few more good bounces.
To be precise, they got two.
One hit off Murray’s back and bounced into the net for the game’s opening goal. It was a complete fluke. But that didn’t stop Murray from blaming himself for the entire loss.
“It just took a funny bounce off my blocker and I lost it,” Murray said. “That ends up being the difference in the game is the push they get after that. They kind of got the momentum from that. That’s on me. That was the difference in the game tonight I think.”
Then, late in the game, with the Penguins’ trailing 2-1 and gifted with a power-play opportunity, Zach Aston-Reese puts a backhander off a post with an open net. Barely a minute later, the Panthers scored the eventual game-winning goal.
“It feels like the same story as Winnipeg,” Aston-Reese said of a potential game-tying goal he missed with a post shot in a 4-1 home loss to the Jets on Oct. 8. “A chance to tie it up and some bad luck.”
Bad luck or puck luck might be a construct hockey players use to explain some random occurrence like a puck off a back or a puck off a post. That will always be debated.
What can’t be debated is the ownership the Penguins’ players display after good and bad games. Or even “meh” games like this.
After a scoreless first period, Florida struck first at 10:54 of the second period. Gaining the offensive zone at center point, Panthers forward Noel Acciari fired a pedestrian wrister on net. Murray easily fought off the shot with his blocker but the rebound popped above him like a baseball. As it descended, Murray lost track of the puck and allowed it to bounce off the “3” on the back of his No. 30 jersey and into the net. Assists were credited to forwards Dryden Hunt and Colton Sceviour.
The Penguins responded 63 seconds later. Off a stretch pass from the defensive zone by Simon, Penguins forward Teddy Blueger attacked the offensive zone on the left wing. Dragging the puck past sliding Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, Blueger advanced on net and fed tight pass to Jake Guentzel, positioned to the left of the cage. As Bobrovsky lunged to his left with a poke check attempt, Guentzel distributed the puck back to Blueger atop the crease and Blueger, fending off a backcheck by Panthers forward Evgenii Dadonov plunked in the easy score for his second goal of the season. Assists went to Guentzel and Simon.
Florida reclaimed a 2-1 lead at 18:00 of the third. After Penguins forward Brandon Tanev and Blueger misconnected on a pass at their left point, Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau claimed the loose puck and surged towards the cage. As Penguins defenseman Kris Letang fell in reaction to a deke, Huberdeau slid a backhander from the slot to the left circle where forward Denis Malgin swatted a one-timer past the blocker of a sprawling Murray. Hubderdeau had the lone assist.
The Penguins were in position to tie the game again with a power-play when Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman was nabbed for tripping at 10:49 of the third. After the Penguins’ first power-play squad struggled to even get the puck up ice, the second unit established possession in the offensive zone and nearly scored. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson fired a one-timer from the right circle, which goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky denied. On the ensuing rebound, Aston-Reese lifted a backhander on a seemingly wide-open cage but hit the right post at the 12:30 mark.
The Panthers took a two-goal lead at 13:42. Collecting a puck on the right half wall, Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov fed a pass to Stralman at the right point. Stralman chucked a wrister towards the net. In the slot, Huberdeau redirected the puck down through the five hole of Murray. Barkov and Stalman netted assists.
It was a one-goal game once again Only 43 seconds later. Stealing a puck at the left point, Penguins forward Sidney Crosby fed it down the wall for Guentzel to create a two-on-one. With Weegar sliding to prevent a pass, Guetnzel was able to slip the puck to Hornqvist to the right of the net. Hornqvist lifted a fluttering wrister which escaped Bobrovsky’s glove hand. Guentzel and Crosby had assists.
An empty-net goal by forward Frank Vatrano secured victory at 18:57. Assists were credited to Malgin and Barkov.
• The Penguins led in shots, 25-22.
• Guentzel led the game with four shots.
• Forward Brian Boyle and Acciari each led the Panthers with three shots.
• Letang led the game with 23:20 of ice time on 25 shifts.
• Weegar led the Panthers with 23:01 of ice time on 29 shifts.
• The Penguins controlled faceoffs, 24-18 (57 percent).
• Penguins forward Jared McCann was 8 for 10 (80 percent).
• Acciari was 7 for 11 (64 percent).
• Boyle led the game with three blocked shots.
• Defenseman John Marino and forward Adam Johnson each led the Penguins with two blocked shots.
• The Panthers now have a three-game winning streak at home against the Penguins.
• The Panthers are now 39-40-16 all-time against the Penguins.
(The pickings were slim for “Historically speaking” after this game.)
• McCann returned to the lineup after missing Saturday’s 3-0 home loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. He logged a quiet 12:09 of ice time on 17 shifts and had one shot attempt.
• Fairly early in the third, with the team trailing, coach Mike Sullivan and staff bumped Hornqvist up to the top line in place of Simon who went to the second line. It’s difficult to say if there was any displeasure with Simon specifically which led to the demotion or if that was just a late-game adjustment given the deficit. Regardless, Hornqvist scored the team’s second goal while playing with Crosby and Guentzel.
• There were only two power-play chances in this game, one for each team. The Penguins turned away the Panthers’ opportunity with ease but looked rather inept with their lone chance which could have tied the game. The first power-play unit allowed the Panthers to clear the puck. It took the second unit to truly establish possession and create a great scoring possibility with Aston-Reese’s post shot.
• Pettersson continues to develop into a really good player. He just seems to always be in the right position defensively, especially with his long reach. And his ability to find shooting lanes – on offense – is starting to really improve.
• The fourth line wasn’t nearly as impactful as it has been as of late. Even with defenseman Juuso Riikola forced into the lineup in recent games as a left winger, that line has been easier to notice. The trio of Johnson, Joseph Blandisi and Sam Lafferty wasn’t bad by any stretch. Just kind of inert.
• Boyle, a long-time Penguins nemesis. made his debut for the Panthers after having signed a contract with them on Sunday. He logged 14:07 of ice time on 19 shifts and recorded three shots on four attempts. He was 3 for 9 in faceoffs (33 percent).
• With forward Vincent Trocheck, an Upper St. Clair native, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad, each missing this game, the Panthers saw their first two man games lost of the season. In contrast, the Penguins entered the season with 41 man games lost.
• Sullivan was happy with the effort:
“The chances were even on both teams, based on our calculations. We had some quality chances. Both teams defended really hard so there wasn’t a lot of ice out there. But we had some opportunities. We hit a few more posts. But I love how our team is competing. We’re competing hard. We’re in a one-goal hockey game. That game could go either way. It didn’t go our way tonight but we’re competing hard.”
• Ditto Hornqvist:
“We played a hard game. It was a tight and fast game out there. We made a few mistakes there. We have to make sure late in periods and early in the periods, we can’t turn the puck over and give them easy chances. That’s what happened on the second goal there. They got momentum then we were behind after that. We tried to get it (back) but it came a little late. But I like our effort. We have to clean up some areas. It was a good game by two pretty good teams.”
• Crosby seemed to think it was kind of a bland game:
“Both teams were just playing pretty safe. Both teams have guys out of the lineup and tried to simplify everything. They try to play with speed, we are too. There wasn’t a lot of room because of that.”
• Murray was “whatever” with the number of bad bounces the Penguins had:
“That’s hockey. Every game that happens. We hit a couple of posts too I think. That’s just hockey. The bounces go both ways. I wouldn’t say the bounces were necessarily that badly against us tonight. It just wasn’t going in for us.”
• Sullivan didn’t know what to make out of the first goal:
“It’s a tough one. I don’t know how to explain that one. It’s a tough one. It’s a nothing play and it ends up in the back of our net.”
• Hornqvist seems pleased to be reunited with Crosby and Guentzel:
“It’s two great players. We just have to get it deep and then grind it down. That was what the third period was all about. We got one goal but we came up short. We need more out of us.”
• Sullivan lauded Aston-Reese’s play:
“He’s playing hard. He’s playing well. Zach’s a good player. He’s a good strong 200-foot player. He’s good in front of the net. He’s good in the battle areas. He’s good on the wall. He’s a good penalty killer. He’s getting chances. Eventually, those chances will go in the net for him.”
• Aston-Reese was asked if there is more pressure on him with an elevated role due to all the injuries:
“I wouldn’t say more pressure. For me, it’s just getting more of an opportunity right now. With that, comes more chances. I’ve just got to put them in.”
• The Penguins traveled to Tampa to face the Lightning on Wednesday. This is the third set of games on back-to-back days this season. They are scheduled for a league-high 17 pairs of such games this season. Sullivan just lumps it up as life in the NHL:
“Everybody has back-to-backs. That’s something that we really can’t control. We don’t overly concern ourselves with it. We just make sure that our guys are well conditioned and they’re ready to play. We’re not focused on the game behind us. We’re focused on the one right in front of us. We’ll just take each game as it comes and we’ll try to be at our best each and every game.”
• Game summary.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .