Yohe’s 10 observations: The Penguins, still alive, overwhelm the Red Wings

PITTSBURGH — Identifying the Penguins’ flaws this season hasn’t required a degree in hockey philosophy. Their warts are, in fact, painfully clear at times.

But don’t say they don’t care. That would be false.

The Penguins, playing their 10th game in 16 days, swarmed the Detroit Red Wings early and often in a 6-3 victory Sunday night at PPG Paints Arena.

The final score was very much a reflection of how the game was played. Firing nearly 40 shots on goal, the Penguins, the NHL’s second-oldest team, looked fresh as a daisy while pulling themselves within five points of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Knowing we are still alive gave us even more jump, in my opinion,” Lars Eller said.

The schedule finally eases up after Tuesday, when they play in New Jersey. They’re off Wednesday and Thursday, which will mark the first stretch in which they’ve had two consecutive days off in nearly a month.

They were playing on the second day of a back-to-back and playing their eighth game in 13 days. But they outshot the Red Wings 15-4 in the first period and never looked back.

“I think, at the end of the day, we still have something to play for,” Kris Letang said. “It brings a second (wind). Hope. Energy.”

The Penguins dictated play in virtually all 60 minutes, generated looks throughout and, frankly, outworked the Red Wings badly.

“It was a four-point game,” Letang said. “It’s still up for grabs. Everybody in our division is losing for some reason. We have to grab points when we can get them right now.”

Sidney Crosby, Eller, Drew O’Connor, Valtteri Puustinen, Michael Bunting and Reilly Smith scored for the Penguins.

Alex Nedeljkovic earned the victory between the pipes.

Crosby ended an 11-game funk without a goal when he scored in the first period. He later set up the red-hot Eller for a power-play goal.

This game was never particularly in doubt.

Ten postgame observations

• Let’s start with Crosby.

He has been mired in one of the worst slumps of his career, but I think it’s over. The captain showed signs of coming to life Saturday against the New York Rangers and recorded a beautiful assist in that game when his feed led to a Bryan Rust goal.

Crosby’s goal was fairly vintage. Two of Crosby’s greatest skills are playing the puck with his feet and his backhand shot. They were both very much on display as he lit the lamp late in the first period.

Corralling a loose puck with his skates, Crosby fired home a backhand for his 33rd goal. It came as no surprise that Crosby scored on the backhand. When the rare slump comes his way, Crosby typically reverts back to what makes him most comfortable. The backhand, unlike for most players, is home base for Crosby, where he feels most comfortable. When he hadn’t played in almost a year because of his long bout with a concussion more than a decade ago, his memorable first goal back came on the backhand. He loves going back to it.

He was really good in this game, and that’s a good sign, obviously.

• What a signing Eller was.

He scored goals in each game this weekend and has 14 for the season, a pretty strong number for a defensive specialist.

Eller went to the net and deflected home a Crosby pass.

“I saw Jake (Guentzel) do it all the time, so I took some tips from him,” Eller said with a smile.

I asked Eller if he had to call for the puck.

“No,” he said. “Sid and I made eye contact. So, I knew it was coming.”

Eller’s game is so complete, and he’s really humming right now. He’s been a consistently impressive force all season.

• It was quite a weekend for Puustinen.

He, too, scored against the Rangers and Red Wings. His greatest weapon is his outstanding release, and was it ever on display against the Red Wings. He scored on a powerful wrister and, later in the game, that same shot led to a rebound and goal from Bunting.

I wasn’t blown away by anything I saw from Puustinen during his first stint with the Penguins, but he’s showing something now. His speed and hockey IQ are good enough to make up for his lack of size.

Then, there is that shot. We see flashes of it, and it’s superb. He needs to make an effort to shoot the puck more regularly. If he’s going to be a longtime NHL contributor, the ability to shoot the puck will be a big reason. It’s a weapon.

• Following the game, Mike Sullivan used Bunting’s name in the same sentence as Patric Hornqvist.

This is a compliment of the highest order. You hear lots of player comparisons in hockey. It’s a pretty common practice. You don’t often hear anyone compared to Hornqvist, whose warrior-like play really didn’t have any matches.

Bunting has clearly made an impact on the Penguins, and Sullivan is a believer. It’s easy to see why. How can you not love the way this guy plays? He’s scrappy. He’s fearless. He goes to the net. How long have the Penguins needed a guy like this?

No, he’s not Guentzel. No one is saying he is. But that’s OK. He’s going to be a good player for the Penguins for a long time.

• Slowly but surely, I see Evgeni Malkin coming to life.

I believe his confidence has taken a real jolt in recent weeks, but he’s starting to resemble himself a bit. Malkin is looking to shoot more, which is always a good sign. He almost looked like he didn’t want the puck during the Western Canada trip, when his confidence appeared to be plummeting.

That isn’t the Malkin we know.

Lately, he wants the puck again. He challenged Detroit defenders in one-on-one situations a few times Sunday night, looking good in the process. Good sign.

• I don’t want anyone to get too excited, but the Penguins’ power play is showing serious signs of life lately. It went 1-for-4 thanks to Eller’s goal, but that’s only part of the story.

Both power-play units were consistently good against the Red Wings, firing at will and generating a number of quality opportunities.

I’m hardly suggesting this unit is fixed, but it’s been better in recent games, and I liked what I saw against the Red Wings.

• Erik Karlsson has two goals in his past 47 games.

Oh, he’s done some good things, and I actually like his game a lot the last few games. And, of course, any time I offer any criticism of his game, someone will send me a chart with his expected goals total.

He’s not what ails the Penguins, and he’s certainly done some good things lately.

But still … two goals in 47 games? Incredible.

• I couldn’t believe how bad the Red Wings were. Wildly unimpressive.

I’m sure they miss Dylan Larkin, but they’ve lost eight of nine and look like a team in free fall. The holes in their defensive game were profound. I didn’t think much of their energy level, either. Something isn’t right with that team.

• I continue to be amazed the Penguins are five points out of a playoff spot.

No, I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs. The truth is, however, all the teams battling for the final playoff spot in the East are playing average hockey at best and, in most cases, well-below-average hockey.

The Penguins are a hot streak away from making the playoffs. Do they have it in them? I’d be very surprised. But again, much of the pack has come back to them.

• The Penguins next play in New Jersey. A few days ago, I would have assumed this game to be completely irrelevant. But I can’t say that is the case now.

Oh, the odds are against them. But if they beat the Devils, things get a little bit more interesting.

The Penguins still believe they can make the playoffs. That much is clear. Though it looks wildly unlikely, their victory against Detroit has at least pumped a bit of life into a team that should have already been dead.

(Photo of Valtteri Puustinen after scoring against Red Wings goaltender Alex Lyon: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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