PITTSBURGH – Dan Bylsma promised the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to return to their aggressive style of play, with plenty of speed and an up-and-down game that played to their strengths.
He didn’t promise it exactly this way, but a team that badly needs wins was eager to grab one Thursday, despite blowing three leads.
Sergei Gonchar, playing only his third game of the season, scored on a slapshot after Pittsburgh quickly squandered a two-goal lead in the third period and the Penguins beat slumping Montreal 5-4 for Bylsma’s first NHL coaching victory.
“Our guys were energized, focused and ready to go,” Bylsma said. “I think they had a real clear understanding of what was at stake and the way we wanted to play. While it wasn’t perfect, I think they sent a message loud and clear.”
The Penguins had lost three of four before Ruslan Fedotenko fed Gonchar in the high slot, then went down low to screen goalie Carey Price in front to create the fifth goal in the first 7:18 of the third period. Evgeni Malkin and Max Talbot scored in the period’s opening three minutes for Pittsburgh, but Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec scored less than four minutes apart to tie it at four.
“We were playing aggressive and took advantage of some good chances. It was a pretty high tempo, and that’s the way we want to play,” said Sidney Crosby, whose quick pass across the slot set up Malkin’s 26th goal. “We were reacting out there pretty well, but at the same time we still have a few kinks to work out.”
The Canadiens were again without all-star forward Alex Kovalev, who was ordered by general manager Bob Gainey to skip a two-game road trip that began with a 4-3 shootout loss in Washington on Wednesday night. Kovalev’s situation will be re-evaluated Friday, before the Canadiens play Ottawa on Saturday.
Plekanec scored his 13th and 14 goals and added an assist and Kostitsyn had two assists to go with his 22nd goal, but the Canadiens – who have fallen from third in the Eastern Conference to sixth in a month – lost their second in two nights and 12th in 15 games.
“We need to start tightening things up, and realize from here on out it’s not going to get any easier.” said Montreal’s Josh Gorges, who broke his stick seconds before Gonchar scored. “We need to stop this from here on out. We’ve waited too long already.”
Following Gonchar’s first goal since he injured a shoulder during the pre-season, the Penguins finally protected a lead after failing to hold advantages of 1-0, 2-1 and 4-2. That was one of the problems that led to former coach Michel Therrien’s firing and Bylsma’s hiring on Sunday night. Pittsburgh lost to the Islanders 3-2 in a shootout the following day in Bylsma’s debut.
Pittsburgh is 19-7-6 when leading or tied after two periods, with an alarming seven losses in 21 games when they were ahead going into the period.
“It was not really deflating – yes, they were coming back but … I don’t think guys were worried, guys were still confident and nobody really had their head down going, ‘Here we go again,”‘ Talbot said. “Guys were ready to go again, we played with passion and desperation and got a big two points.”
The Penguins closed to within four points of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot as Buffalo and Florida, currently occupying the final two spots with 66 points apiece, each lost.
Bylsma, previously the coach with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL, promised a more aggressive team in both zones and a faster pace. The Penguins provided it, if only in the third period.
“The third period was kind of weird, it was up and down hockey,” Plekanec said.
Weird? Not to Bylsma, it wasn’t. It was exactly the style he wanted, although he would prefer better goaltending and not so many opposition scoring chances.
“It’s definitely a more fun way for us to play,” Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik said. “It’s going to take time to get used to and we were a little sloppy at times, but I thought the work ethic was the best we’ve had in a while.”
Before that, Petr Sykora scored his 22nd by jumping on a rebound of Chris Minard’s shot before Plekanec answered four minutes later in the first with a goal created by Matt Cooke’s giveaway.
Miroslav Satan’s first goal in eight games and his second in 14 games put Pittsburgh up 2-1 as he redirected Ryan Whitney’s slap shot, but a brief two-man advantage led to 39-year-old Mathieu Schneider’s first goal since being traded back to the Canadiens by Atlanta for two draft picks Monday.
Schneider’s slap shot eluded goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with seven seconds left in a 21-second two-man advantage created by penalties on Sykora and Talbot. The goal was Montreal’s fourth on the power play in two nights.
Notes: Malkin’s goal and assist boosted his NHL-leading total to 84 points. … Ryan Whitney got his 150th career point by assisting on Satan’s goal. … Price is 2-8-1 since returning from an unspecified injury. He was 7-0-2 immediately before the injury. … Gonchar scored his first goal since April 2.