A lot of teams play must-win games at this time of year. Most of them are in the Major League Baseball playoffs. The rest are hoping to qualify for a spot in the college football national championship field.
Uh, not really. Not when the second week of the regular season is just beginning.
So no, it wasn't mandatory that the Penguins beat the Ducks at PPG Paints Arena Thursday night in the finale of the four-game homestand that opened their season. Pretty darned close, though. After all, they had lost two of the first three, and already had more guys on Long-Term Injured Reserve than they had points in the standings.
So their 2-1 victory was pretty much a two-point tourniquet. It's not that their playoff aspirations were going to bleed out eight days into the season, but losing three of four at home could make any team hemorrhage confidence. Especially one whose lineup figures to be diluted for the foreseeable future because of injuries.
"We knew we needed a win," Dominik Simon said. "Today wasn't the prettiest win, but it was about finding a way."
In perhaps the least surprising development of this young season, the Penguins found their way to a victory, in large part, because Sidney Crosby led them there. He scored their first goal by redirecting a Kris Letang shot past goalie John Gibson, set up Jake Guentzel's game-winner at 7:24 of the third period with a sensational individual effort, went 15-10 on faceoffs and was on the ice as the Penguins were trying to protect their lead as regulation was winding down.
Other than that, he really didn't contribute all that much. Other than solid play on pretty much every shift, that is.
"I thought Sid was great," Mike Sullivan said. "He's such an inspiration when he plays the game as hard as he does on most nights. I thought he was a force at both ends of the rink."
At least on this night, that commitment was contagious.
"It was a great team effort," Sullivan said. "Guys played hard. We competed hard. I thought we played smart. We really limited the scoring chances for most of the night against a pretty good hockey team."
This game could be a template for how the Penguins will have to play most nights while Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad are recovering from their injuries. When a team's skill level drops, smarts and sweat became more important, and the Penguins had plenty of both against the Ducks.
"We're going to have to win games like that throughout the year," Guentzel said. "Everyone battled, and everyone competed. That's a game we need to win."
Continuing to operate within a sound structure will be critical, as will being more opportunistic. When there are fewer chances to make game-changing plays, capitalizing on the ones that do come along becomes even more important.
And the Penguins failed to do that several times against Anaheim. Like when, with the game tied, 1-1, in the second period, they had a 5-on-3 power play for 61 seconds, but failed to get a goal. Or a shot.
Not long after that, Dominik Kahun had a breakaway and put his shot off the crossbar, not under it.
And just 30 seconds after Crosby had given the Penguins a 1-0 lead, Matt Murray was beaten by an Ondrej Kase shot from the bottom of the left circle.
Still, this game was not a parfait of blunders, with layer upon layer of mistakes, the way that, say, their season-opening loss to the Sabres a week earlier had been.
"We competed extremely hard tonight," Murray said. "And we should be really proud about that. It was an important game for us. It's still early in the season, but we're trying to keep hardening our identity, and I think that's what we did tonight."
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