PHILADELPHIA — Ron Hextall had to be loving his latest return to the city in which he once starred on the ice. After all, his vision for the Penguins is finally starting to show, well, on the ice.
Consider as evidence the Penguins’ fifth consecutive victory, a 4-1 win over the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Friday night. Far from the “Thanksgiving Showdown” it was billed as for marketing purposes, this contest was the hockey equivalent of WWE’s “Friday Night Smackdown!” — only all the Flyers could muster were some fights.
The Penguins held the pen and booked themselves to go over as Hextall, their general manager, would have wanted: strong goaltending, solid pushback, and with a noticeable depth advantage.
“That’s something we want to establish,” Teddy Blueger said of the Penguins’ territorial advantage in this victory. They finished with a 28-14 advantage in scoring chances at five-on-five, as tracked by Natural Stat Trick.
“Once you establish (possession) you’ve got a much better shot at producing. That’s something we’re trying to do as a team, but obviously our line.”
Granted, the Flyers were badly banged up. So what?
The Flyers aren’t a very good team lately. The Penguins bested them by making use of a fourth line that continues to show promise.
Take Blueger, a center with third-line pedigree, but working down a peg because the Penguins can roll Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter down the middle. An argument can be made — probably even for the Penguins — that Blueger is a No. 3 center at this point in his career. He plays a shutdown style defensively, but his offensive game continues to develop to the point that he’s capable of driving possession.
He did exactly that against the Flyers.
“He’s a big dynamic (guy),” said Josh Archibald of Blueger. “He’s got skill, especially coming out of our zone. He’s really calm and poised with the puck. For us, that’s a big thing — we can get the puck down low, and he can start working it.”
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Blueger was the primary set-up man on three of the Penguins’ four goals. The first was by Archibald, and the final two by Ryan Poehling.
“That line’s playing really well for us,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
“First and foremost, they’re a real conscientious, stingy, defensive line. They compete on pucks and when they can chip in offensively like they did it’s just an added bonus for us.”
Fair is fair. And if Hextall was being criticized for his offseason moves during the Penguins’ how-long-ago-it-now-seems seven-game winless streak, he deserves some credit as the fourth line envisioned begins to assert itself. He signed Archibald late on the opening day of free agency this past summer and snagged Poehling as part of the deal that swapped Mike Matheson for Jeff Petry.
Hextall has long said he sought to make the Penguins “harder to play against.”
Every GM says something similar about his squad.
Thing is, Hextall appears to have done it.
The Penguins are 5-1-1 since their seven-game winless streak. Their positive results started with the benching of Kasperi Kapanen — a Hextall re-signee this past offseason (hey, no GM is perfect!) — and the moving of Brian Dumoulin to the third defense pairing.
Also, though, the Penguins have won five of six since Blueger returned to their lineup after missing the start of this season due to a nagging upper-body injury that left him frustrated and the Penguins without one of their X-factors. That would be Blueger, but also the line he has started to anchor.
“It’s a huge role, a momentum-building role,” Bryan Rust said. “Obviously, it’s tougher to produce offense from there. But those guys are huge on the (penalty kill) for us, and huge in building momentum for us.”
• Gutty decision by Marcus Pettersson to drop the gloves against the Flyers’ Nicolas Deslauriers when the outcome was still within doubt. The Flyers’ tried to get back in that game taking some liberties, in this case on Kris Letang.
“He would have done the same for me,” Pettersson said of Letang. “The opportunity was there.”
Penguins players were effusive in their praise of Pettersson for having a go with Deslauriers, one of the reputable fighters in the league. So was Sullivan.
“He’s just an unbelievable teammate,” Sullivan said. “He’s a competitive guy, cares about his teammates. To stand up for Tanger in that circumstance — he fought a pretty tough kid on the other side — it’s hard to articulate it from my perspective.
Pettersson is one of the most well-liked players on the Penguins. His game has grown so much, but he’s always been among the highest of character guys on the roster.
The look on his face when fighting with Deslauriers was priceless. Pettersson clearly knew he was in for it. That he had a go at it anyway speaks volumes.
• Tristan Jarry faced his first penalty shot of the season and made a nice save.
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Jarry is starting to play near the form he showed earlier in the season, when he was the right kind of aggressive and challenging shooters. His lateral movement has been spot-on during this most recent stretch.
• Wouldn’t be surprised if Pierre-Olivier Joseph takes a seat for against the Maple Leafs at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday night. Not that he was awful against the Flyers, but he wasn’t good enough Friday to warrant Chad Ruhwedel not getting a chance to knock off some rust and get a look.
• The move of Petry to the top power play feels as though it’s going to pay off. Won’t dare predict when. But he’s on that unit for one reason: to shoot. Sooner or later his fellow top power-play unit mates are going to recognize that he’s open, the shooting lane is his, and the smartest play is letting him rip.
Well, they should recognize as much. One never knows with this group.
For real, though: Petry has that shot anytime he’s given the chance to take it.
• The Penguins won their first game wearing their Robo Penguin logo as the primary emblem since the 2000-01 season. They had been 0-2 in their so-called reverse retro jerseys this season.
Guess that means the curse is reversed?
Not really. But this win was a start.
(Top photo of Ryan Poehling, Teddy Blueger and Josh Archibald: Kyle Ross / USA Today)