Penguins Grades: Sloppy Effort, New Players Drag Pens Into Fight (2024)

The Pittsburgh Penguins lacked it. A spark. It doesn’t require an entire team to decide in unison to play at their peak performance levels. No, the reason that glue players and scrappy underdogs have a place in the game is to provide those unexpected moments in a game that is otherwise coasting toward the forgettable abyss of disinterest and flat soda.

OK, or flat pop. Your call.

With the Penguins seemingly unable to muster the slight flicker of motivation for a complete game, instead trading chances with the Columbus Blue Jackets before being on the wrong side of the puck altogether, newly acquired Michael Bunting was that scrappy underdog who dragged the Penguins back into the fight. Ultimately, the Penguins raised their game enough. Evgeni Malkin showed off for his parents with a pair of goals, and the Penguins beat the hapless Columbus 3-2 at PPG Paints Arena.

It wasn’t pretty, but it counts the same.

Must Read: Malkin’s Power Play Goals Lift Penguins Past Blue Jackets 3-2

The game turned after about 30 minutes. Midway through the second period and trailing 1-0, Bunting aggressively backchecked the Columbus breakout, stole the puck in the offensive zone, and set off a chain of high-danger scoring chances in which the Penguins forced Columbus to scramble to defend.

Bunting immediately raised the Penguins’ temperature from a cadaver to engaged.

Evgeni Malkin scored a pair of power-play goals in the second period, and the teams went to the locker room tied 2-2 before Drew O’Connor converted an awkward wrister from the left circle for the game-winner.

Sidney Crosby had two more assists as he closed on Wayne Gretzky’s record of 19 consecutive seasons with at least a point per game. He has 78 points (35-43-78) in 72 games and needs just four more points.

No, it wasn’t a well-played game, not even close. Not much will be praised when the coaches roll out the video, and the boys might need pillows to sit on, but a win counts and the Penguins haven’t been eliminated yet.

The Penguins not only outshot Columbus 16-4 in the second period but 36-19 in the game. It reads a lot better than it looked.

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins and Columbus traded chances in the first period. Three-on-twos in one direction became odd-man breaks in the other. The first 30 minutes was an abysmal display of alternating loose and detached play.

The lack of crowd noise was not the fault of the fans.

Columbus probably had the better chances in the first 20 minutes, though the graphs at showed otherwise. The Penguins worked the walls in the offensive zone far better than the defensive zone to maintain possession, but their tips went wide, and they didn’t fight for good looks.

Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic made several tough saves in the first, including a point-blank chance when Patrik Laine shed defenseman Kris Letang for a clean look from inside the left dot.

Following the Penguins’ impressive win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, the first period was a disappointing snoozer. Columbus was also sloppy, but the Penguins were too often going through the motions.

It wasn’t until Bunting brought out the fight in the Penguins that we saw something resembling structure and aggression.

Even then, the structure was sloppy, and the puck management qualified them for accounting work on Wall Street. The turnovers at center ice and ill-advised low-to-high passes to the wrong team launched far too many odd-man rushes.

The Penguins played something akin to a real game in the third, but as coach Sullivan praised his five defensem*n after Ryan Graves left in the first period with an upper-body injury, he took a little shot at his forwards.

“Well, given the amount of rushes we gave up, I thought (the defensem*n) competed pretty hard,” Sullivan said.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B-

Terrible first period. OK second. Good third. Once they dialed in for the third period, it became a watchable hockey game. They still made too many mistakes with the puck, leading to odd-man rushes earlier in the third, but new legs (Bunting) and young legs (Drew O’Connor, Jack St. Ivany) did some good things, and the veterans engaged.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A

The Penguins goalie got his second straight start, and he made a few sparkling saves in the first period and was good when tested for the rest of the game; a few pad saves, and a couple of flashes of leather made a good performance.

Jack St. Ivany: B+

There was a sequence in the middle of the third period when Columbus tried to push back. St. Ivany was quick back to the puck, chipped it to a forward (who didn’t play it well), then St. Ivany kept winning the puck battles, ultimately pinning a pair of Blue Jackets to the wall.

“I think he’s played really well. I think he’s competing hard. He defends well,” said Sullivan. “He’s a mobile guy, and he has a good stick. He’s making calculated decisions with the puck. I think he’s played really well for us.”

Drew O’Connor: B

A couple of turnovers, but a couple of rushes and taking the puck deep. He also raised his game in the defensive zone with so many mistakes around him.

Evgeni Malkin: A

His parents come into town. He plays an inspired game (after the first period). He shot the puck on the power play. Yes, as the rules state, that is, in fact, a legal maneuver.

He and Bunting swarmed around the net. Malkin also did his best in the defensive zone, too.

I found this on X after initial publishing. Kind of says it all about Bunting.


— Hannah Kirkell (@h_kirk6) March 29, 2024

Penguins Grades: Sloppy Effort, New Players Drag Pens Into Fight (2024)
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