Sidney Crosby was smiling.
The rest of his teammates displayed a series of of emotions ranging from downcast to exhaustion to frustration as they filed into their dressing room to speak with reporters. Some put on a brave face while offering explanations as to why they lost to the Islanders, 3-1, tonight at Consol Energy Center. Others spoke with a hollow stare while discussing the immense gravity tomorrow's game in Buffalo carries in regards to their playoff hopes.
One player slammed his skates into his bag with frustration. Others got out of their gear as quickly as possible in order to get to a shower. It wasn't a happy room for obvious reason.
But the Penguins' captain smiled. Sneered actually.
After his media availability, a reporter casually said, "Got to ramp it up tomorrow."
Crosby responded, "Oh yeah. That's why we play 82."
The reporter noted, "They [the Sabres] lost tonight, if that matters."
Crosby retorted, "No. It doesn't matter who we play."
A cliched answer and a friendly expression will have no impact on the Penguins' fortunes Saturday against a dreadful Sabres team. Their problems lie in execution and not so much in motivation. They realize what is at stake. They're clearly frustrated. They've lost five consecutive games as their playoff hopes slip away. They keep making the opposing goaltenders they face look like Vezina winners. They're skating with a limited lineup due to injuries and mismanagement of their salary cap.
They aren't in a good place.
But they're in a better place than the Bruins. Despite this hideous slide down the standings at the end of the regular season, the Penguins are still in a playoff position. As crazy as this is, even if the Penguins lose tomorrow, they can still get in if the Bruins lose. The Penguins still control their own destiny, to borrow a tired cliche, and their captain fully realizes it.
Crosby can't be the only one though. The Penguins need more from the rest of this lineup. They need Paul Martin's greatest game. They need Evgeni Malkin to fight through whatever ailment he's dealing with. They need Chris Kunitz for score a goal when he has a point-blank chance. They need Ben Lovejoy to regain his shattered confidence. They need Steve Downie to not take dumb penalties. They need Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau, Brandon Sutter, Maxim Lapierre and Beau Bennett to do something. They need Marc-Andre Fleury to keep being their best player.
They need all of that and more against the Zac Dalpe-led Sabres who secured last place overall in the NHL tonight with a 4-2 loss to the Blue Jackets.
Patric Hornqvist echoed Crosby's thoughts:
“That's why we play 82 games. To see who is the best team is after that. Tomorrow is a hell of a game. Everybody is excited. It's to live or die. Can't wait. “
Saturday's game certainly seems like an automatic two points for the Penguins. But the only thing which has been automatic for them as of late as been the losing.
Tonight's game was the latest example of that. The Penguins followed a familiar script albeit with some different results in the first period. They launched an aggressive attack on the Islanders in the first period which resulted in a 17-5 lead in shots on net. They even appeared to to take a 1-0 lead on a would-be power-play goal by Patric Hornqvist at 12:08 of the first period. Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak fell to his left and smothered the puck as it danced on the goal line. Officials didn't appear to make any ruling on the ice and consulted replay officials who decreed there wasn't enough evidence to overturn their apparent "no-goal" call on the ice:
Hornqvist described the play:
"I just tried to get it over the line. On the replay, you see the puck on the right side of the crossbar but obviously the crossbar is further back than the goal line. They've got the best cameras in the league so I trust them but I thought it was in. Tough bounce. They've got the best cameras."
That seemed like a fair call from our vantage point.
All of eight seconds later, the Islanders took a 1-0 lead when Cal Clutterbuck zipped a breakout pass from his own right wing corner to Casey Cizikas in the neutral zone. Malkin, working the point on the power play, stumbled in trying to defend it and Cizikas blew by a flat-footed Paul Martin to create a breakaway. He attacked the goal and lifted a wrister over the glove hand of Fleury.
It was the 11th short-handed goal allowed by the Penguins this season. Only the hopeless Maple Leafs (12) have allowed more.
Martin was asked why this team had so many issues with allowing short-handed goals.
“For guys we have on the power play, we usually only play one [defenseman] out there. So it's up to the [defenseman] to play defense when you have four forwards usually not used to coming back or skating backwards. Then the forwards we have are very aggressive. When they're on the sides there of having to come back and sometimes, the puck bounces out and they're in bad position."
When this team was clicking at over 40 percent on the power play at the start of the season, the four-forward/one defenseman gamble was worth it, especially when Kris Letang was that defneseman. But given the sputtering output of the power play, this team is simply taking too big of a chance with this alignment.
That said, given the ongoing shortage of able-bodied defensemen, they simply don't have the luxury of using four defensemen on the power play.
Things looked pretty bleak most of the second period as the Penguins kept launching shots at Halak and he kept spitting it back out just like he did with the Canadiens in their 2010 postseason upset of the Penguins. Then came a goal from a completely unlikely source.
After Crosby just dominated the puck in the offensive zone, Martin chucked a wrister from the center point wide to the right of the net. It hit off the end boards and Crosby beat former teammate Tyler Kennedy to the puck and forced it into the crease. The puck slid under Halak's blocker and through to the left circle. Scuderi pinched down from the left point and chipped the puck by Halak's right pad with 5.7 seconds left in the period.
It was Scuderi's first goal since the season-opening game of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Kings. And it was his 100th career point. It came at a huge time.
Whatever momentum the Penguins took into the third period was quickly snuffed out 2:46 into the period. Former Penguins defneseman Brian Strait whacked a slapper from the left point. Islanders forward Kyle Okposo was positioned in the slot and re-directed the puck on net. Fleury kicked it out his his left leg but allowed a rebound to the right of the cage. Center John Tavares, of all people, was standing there and plunked in the easy rebound goal to take the lead for good.
The Penguins kept firing a steady streak of shots on Halak but never truly challenged him after Tavares' goal.
The Islanders secured the win with 3:40 left in regulation when forward Michael Grabner raced up the left wing, blew by a flat-footed Ian Cole and whistled a sick wrister by Fleury's glove hand on the far side.
-Back to Halak, he looked like the guy who shut down the Penguins' offense in the 2010 playoffs. He didn't steal goals all that much but he just seemed to be in the right position nearly every time a puck was on net. He just seemed to be in total control all game.
-Crosby and Hornqvist once again drove much of the Penguins' offense. Crosby was strong down low with the puck and Hornqvist was a buzzsaw around the New York crease.
-Daniel Winnik gave an honest albeit ineffective effort on the left wing of that line.
-The team's second line generated a few scoring chances thanks to an improved effort by David Perron who may have been energized by a chance to play on Malkin's wing. He had a few creative plays including one pass in the first period which set up Kunitz for a point blank shot in the left circle. But as has been the case with Kunitz much of this season, his shots simply don't go in.
-The third line was just... there. Sutter and Bennett had one nice play with a criss-cross which led to a decent chance for Sutter in the right circle during the third period. But beyond that, nada.
-Steve Downie's main impact on the game came in the form of a low hit against Thomas Hickey behind the Islanders' net late in the second period. Hickey went to play a fanned shot behind his cage and got up ice then Downie led with his hip and dropped Hickey who tried to jump away from the hit. An official immediately put his arm up as HIckey laid on the ice in pain. Downie slammed his stick on the ice in protest then actually walked down his runway seemingly under the assumption that he was given a misconduct penalty of some sort. Luckily for him and the Penguins, he only drew a clipping minor. Regardless, he was lucky he didn't get an unsportsmanlike conduct minor as well for his protest.
-Lapierre had some of the team's better scoring chances as he had a few shots or re-directions in tight. Halak, his former Canadiens and Blues teammate, just stuffed him repeatedly.
-Blake Comeau is hurting. He won't admit anything but his shot just doesn't have much on it. He had one slapper tonight which appeared to have an arch on it. He is still wearing a heavy brace on his left wrist from the injury he suffered earlier this season.
-Craig Adams had one shift and 35 seconds of ice time.
-No, for real.
-The Penguins' defense looks exhausted at this point. Paul Martin looked like he had no color to his skin after the game. It was almost like he gave too much at a blood drive. So much has been asked of him due to the injuries and he's played admirably but he looks like he's close to hitting a wall.
-Scuderi had one of his better games during this stretch of increased workloads. He was physical, he was fairly aggressive with the puck and his goal was actually a pretty nice play.
-Ben Lovejoy will get a lot of grief for not covering Tavares on his goal because that's the fashionable thing to do right now. But expecing a defenseman to cover an opponent off a bang-bang play like that is irrational. Lovejoy deserved scorn for Tuesday's game in Ottawa. Not tonight.
-Ian Cole looked like he wasn't aware of the speed Grabner has. Grabner blew by him like he was wearing cement shoes.
-Taylor Chorney was just there. He didn't do anything which blew you away or hurt the team. At this point, that's a positive accomplishment for this team.
-The ice time for the defensemen tonight illustrates how dire this situation is:
-The playoffs were on the line tonight and Rob Scuderi is north of 24 minutes in a regulation game? What universe is this?
-Fleury was strong. Maybe he could have stolen one more goal. Maybe he could have kicked out a safer rebound on the Tavares goal. But he was not a problem tonight.
-The Penguins weren't the only team to go with five defensemen tonight. New York's Travis Hamonic was injured on a hip check by Scuderi n the first period. He hobbled off the ice and never returned due to an undisclosed injury. There was no update on his status.
-Unlike the Penguins, the Islanders got contributions from their depth forwards. Cal Clutterbuck, Michael Grabner and Casey Cizikas each had contributions in this win.
-The Penguins led in shots on net, 38-26.
-The Penguins led in attempted shots, 69-41.
-Hornqvist and Lee each led the game with six shots.
-Martin led the game with 27:55 of ice time.
-Johnny Boychuk led the Islanders with 24:48.
-The Penguins controlled faceoffs, 32-18 (64 percent).
-Crosby was 13 for 20 (65 percent).
-Josh Bailey was 8 for 17 (47 percent).
-Strait led the game with four blocked shots.
-Fire Ray Shero.
-None of the Penguins had more that one blocked shot.
-The Penguins finish with a 9-17-4 record against Neapolitan Ice Cream Metropolitan Division teams, worst in the division.
-Crosby and Tavares are now tied for the league lead in points with 84 but Tavares (37) has more goals than Crosby (28).
-The Penguins' magic number remains at two points.
-The Islanders clinched third place in the division and will play the Capitals.
-Martin (109) moved past Maxime Talbot (108) points for 79th on the Penguins career scoring list.
-Mike Johnston declined to name his starting goaltender for Saturday. One would assume Fleury will get the nod given the importance of the game.
-Some sights. The ice:
-Fans entering the barn:
-There was some Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins representation. Bennett:
-And Mark Letestu:
-We spotted a few curious jersey fouls. Ryan Miller Sabres:
-Jimmy Howard Red Wings:
-And Mike Commodore Flames:
-There were some Islanders fans present. Tavares:
-Given his recent retirement, we'll let this Troy Polamalu Steelers jersey slide:
-Jani Rita Finland? Wow:
-A few one-timer Penguins/Islanders are represented. Bill Guerin:
-Jersey of the Night: Arron Asham: