PNC ARENA—The ruthlessly positive coach wasn’t feeling particularly positive.
“We were light tonight. We got pushed out of the game. They played a heavier game than we did.”
Penguins rookie Jayson Megna scored his first NHL goal and added an assist while looking like the best skater on the ice for much of the night. Sidney Crosby added a pair of assists and defenseman Brooks Orpik tallied helpers on all three Penguins goals in front of Marc-Andre Fleury’s 20 casual saves.
Nathan Gerbe, playing in his 200th career game, scored the Canes’ lone goal on a 5-on-3 power play in the first period. Taking the starting goalie role during Cam Ward’s month-long injury absence, Justin Peters put in a solid performance in stopping 26 shots. Not even a terrific early fight between Brett Sutter and Joe Vitale could spark the homers.
Actually, the Penguins could have confused this game with a home game. Looking down into the stands from the press box, Crosby’s 87 outnumbered Eric Staal’s 12 and Jeff Skinner’s 53 in some sections. The visitors responded from the start, outclassing the Canes in every aspect of the game in the early going. Carolina fans had no reason to make their presence felt for a while.
Oh, but there was the fight, not three minutes into the game. Vitale responded after Sutter boarded Craig Adams in a corner. Vitale used Sutter’s head as a punching bag at first, and then Sutter turned the tables and did the same to Vitale.
And then the Penguins got back to the business at hand.
Pittsburgh registered the first nine shots on goal in the game, one of which Tanner Glass deposited behind Peters, cleaning up a rebound of the first of several rushes down the wing by Megna. When Carolina got its first shot—a dump-in by Ron Hainsey that rolled on net—the fans gave their team a Bronx cheer.
Once Carolina steadied, they tied the game during a two-man advantage on a goal that showed why they picked Elias Lindholm as highly as they did. Alexander Semin, a couple steps in from one of the points, zipped a pass to Lindholm straddling the goal line in the corner.
Lindholm one-timed the pass to Gerbe, who one-timed the puck past Fleury before the goalie could react. If Lindholm first catches that pass and then slings it to Gerbe, the defense collapses on the shooter or the goalie gets over. Instead, the whole penalty kill was caught flatfooted. It was a slick play from a team that has them in short supply right now.
Throughout the second, the teams looked evenly matched, but the big-name talent on the Penguins emerged with a slick play of their own.
Chris Kunitz put Pittsburgh up 2-1 after Sidney Crosby sprinted into the Canes’ zone and stopped on a dime, turning poor Andrej Sekera inside out. Kunitz chipped Crosby’s pass to the net over a sliding Peters so the Penguins could take a lead into the third.
And that’s where Muller’s beef with his team came from. Carolina summoned little over the final frame. Perhaps they were missing Jeff Skinner and Radek Dvorak, both scratched with minor injuries. Perhaps they were stunned by Jordan Staal skating off, doubled over after an awkward collision with Kunitz after he pelted Peters with a slapshot from the dot. Staal returned to the ice later and appeared fine.
Maybe it was Megna’s goal that couldn’t be overcome. The rookie was evident all night, skating hard and angling fearlessly at Peters. His goal wasn’t particularly spectacular—a Crosby shot that pinballed off a defender and then either Megna’s leg or the blade of his stick a couple feet off the ground. In either case, it withstood a brief review and the Penguins had a 3-1 lead.
Pittsburgh more or less bled the clock the rest of the way. Gerbe had a great chance for a second goal when Semin’s slick move through the low slot drew Fleury out to the side of the goal, but Paul Martin lifted Gerbe’s stick just enough to prevent him from tapping in a freebie.
“Some of our guys have to start contributing,” a joyless Muller muttered afterwards. “At the end of the day, certain guys are there to produce, but there’s other guys who have to start bringing something to the table. When you’re playing a team like Pittsburgh and some of these teams that are strong teams, you have to bring more. You can’t come in and play an average game.”
After picking up two tough road wins, Carolina has lost three straight going into a few days of practice before hosting the conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night. That will be the first of 14 Canes games in November as the schedule compresses to accommodate the Olympic tourney in February.
Muller knows that an average effort over the next month could scuttle a promising start. The other Metropolitan Division teams off to slow starts are heating up. Carolina has to change the grit of their sandpaper or else tumble down the standings.