Speaking with media at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY following his team’s morning skate, Buffalo Sabers coach Don Granato had a blunt way of describing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ success in their previous 14 games entering Friday.
“They’re 10-2-2 or something ridiculous,” he said.
Granato quickly edited himself.
“Penguin-esque, I should say, with how they’ve been playing lately,” Granato expanded. “In my mind, they never struggle. You can get a false sense of security pretty quickly if you think they’re in any stretch of struggle because they just have so much experience and talent.
“It’s the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’m not shocked they come in here 10-2-2.”
That mark improved to 11-2-2 after the Penguins claimed a 4-3 overtime victory on Friday. A goal by forward Jeff Carter on a four-on-three power-play opportunity at 1:36 of the extra period was the difference.
Overall, the Penguins were 2 for 6 with power-play opportunities Friday and continued to see success with a special teams unit that has improved in recent games after largely struggling through the first two months of the season.
For the first time this season, they have power-play goals in four consecutive games.
“The power play is starting to gain some traction,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told media in Buffalo. “They’re feeling it, you know? They’re feeling it better when they’re instinctive. When they’re feeling it, they just make instinctive plays. They pass the puck and it’s crisp. It’s on the tape, it’s hard and it’s quick. We put our opponents in a reactive mode as opposed to a proactive mode. It’s a big difference.
“When you’re a (penalty) killer, when you’re proactive and you can steer pucks into certain areas and influence where the puck is going to go, you feel like you’re in control. When you’re in a reactive mode, you feel like you’re not. I thought our power play did a real good job of that tonight.”
Following a scoreless first period, each team got on the scoreboard in the late stages of the second period.
A power-play goal by Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, his 13th of the season, opened the scoring at the 15:36 mark. From the left circle of the offensive zone, Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin forced a pass to the slot that was broken up by the stick of Sabers defenseman Mattias Samulesson. The rebound bounced to the inner rim of the left circle, where Guentzel deadened it with his left skate then ripped a wrister past the blocker of goaltender Craig Anderson on the near side. Penguins forward Rickard Rakell supplied a moving screen on the sequence. Malkin and defenseman Jeff Petry had assists.
Sabers forward Victor Olofsson tied the game, 1-1, at the 18:08 mark with his 12th goal of the season. Off a stretch pass by Sabers defenseman Rasmus Dahlin from behind his own net, forward Casey Mittlestadt gained the offensive zone on the left wing and left a drop pass at the half wall for linemate Tyson Jost. Almost immediately, Jost snapped a pass to the right circle for an open Olofsson. As backchecking Penguins forward Sidney Crosby made a futile attempt at a diving pokecheck, Olofsson took the puck on his backhand, flipped to his forehand and attacked the net, putting a wrister past goaltender Tristan Jarry’s blocker. Jost and Mittlestadt netted assists.
The Sabers took their first lead only 1:07 later when forward Jeff Skinner found his 13th goal. From the right circle of the offensive zone, Mittelstadt dished a cross-ice pass to Sabers forward Tage Thompson in the left circle. Avoiding pressure from Penguins forward Brock McGinn, Thompson fed the puck to Skinner to the right of the crease. As Jarry over-slid a bit to his left in reaction, Skinner waited for Jarry to move out of position and snapped a forehand shot into the cage. Assists went to Thompson and Mittlestadt.
Rakell tied the game again, 2-2, with his 11th goal 2:53 into the third period. After Crosby went all out to keep a puck in the offensive zone by sliding, feet first, into the boards at the left point, he backhanded the puck to the far boards, where it was picked up by forward Danton Heinen. After a wrister by Heinen from the right circle was blocked by Sabers defenseman Henri Jokiharju and deflected to the left corner, rookie defenseman Owen Power tried to play the puck but lost it in the left circle. From there, Heinen reclaimed possession and whipped an immediate wrister on net that Anderson rejected with his left leg. Rakell was all over the rebound and buried a wrister past Anderson’s left skate. The lone assist went to Heinen.
McGinn’s eighth goal of the season put the Penguins back in front, 3-2, at 16:30 of the third period. After McGinn gained the offensive zone on the right wing, he dished it back and forth with linemate Kasperi Kapanen then rocketed a one-timer to the far side that beat Anderon’s blocker and clinked off the right post before entering the cage. Kapanen and defenseman Jan Rutta registered assists.
After Malkin took a hooking penalty at 16:38 of the third period, the Sabers were granted a power-play opportunity and took full advantage with the tying goal at the 18:30 mark with Anderson pulled for an extra attacker. From low in the right circle of the offensive zone, Sabers forward Jack Quinn dished a pass to the high slot for on-rushing Sabers forward Kyle Okposo who swatted a one-timer past Jarry’s blocker for his second goal. Quinn and Mittlestadt had assists.
Things got rough late in regulation at 19:38 of the third period.
After Anderson covered a puck to freeze play, Guentzel did a drive-by and swatted at Anderson, who appeared to be furious after the fact. As Guentzel skated near the home bench, Skinner engaged him. The two skilled wingers exchanged a few slashes before things escalated into Skinner cross-checking Guentzel in the face then wrestling him to the ice.
Players gathered in a scrum and officials separated the combatants. After things were sorted out, Skinner wound up with a minor penalty as well as a match penalty, an infraction that carries an automatic suspension pending a review from the NHL. Guentzel was assessed a minor penalty for slashing as well.
Late Friday night, the NHL announced Skinner will have a disciplinary hearing for his actions.
Guentzel briefly retreated to the dressing room before returning to serve his penalty.
That interaction resulted in the Penguins getting a power-play opportunity that carried into the overtime period. They took full advantage of the four-on-three scenario.
Settling a loose puck on the right half wall of the offensive zone, Malkin maneuvered his way to the high slot and then fed a pass to the left circle for Rakell. Faking a one-timer, Rakell deftly fed a forehand pass to the front of the crease. Carter stopped the puck with his right skate then kicked it forward with his left skate before shuffling a forehand shot past Anderson’s left skate for his fourth goal. Assists went to Rakell and Malkin.
Jarry made 28 saves on 31 shots as his record improved to 12-3-3.
“They had a lot of real good looks,” Carter said. “(Jarry) has been really solid for us the last little while. He’s seeing the puck and making the saves when we’re under siege a little bit. It’s a big boost for us and he was tonight.”
Anderson, the NHL’s oldest player at age 41, stopped 29 of 33 shots as his record tumbled to 9-5-5.
He and his teammates might have had a better result had Skinner not lost his temper and given the Penguins’ suddenly dangerous power play an opportunity.
“You don’t want to see those kinds of plays in our game,” Carter said. “They’re tough to watch. But Jake is tough. … We’ll take the power-play (opportunity) and lucky enough to get the extra point tonight.”
• The Penguins will host the Sabers at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday, shortly after 7 pm
• The Penguins’ scratches were defenseman Kris Letang (stroke) and forward Ryan Poehling (undisclosed injury).
• Jarry (105 wins) surpassed Ken Wregget (104) for fourth place on the franchise’s career goaltending wins list.
• The Penguins had not faced a goaltender as old as Anderson in almost nine years:
At 41 years and 202 days, Craig Anderson is the oldest player in the NHL.
It was the first time in nearly nine years the Penguins faced a goalie that old.
— Seth Rorabaugh (@SethRorabaugh) December 10, 2022
• The Penguins’ last overtime win against the Sabers happened almost one year ago on Dec. 17, 2021. Carter also had the winning score in a 3-2 home win at PPG Paints Arena.
Follow the Penguins all season long.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .