Yohe’s 10 observations: Tristan Jarry takes charge until Penguins come to life

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t play a particularly pretty game Thursday at PPG Paints Arena against the Montreal Canadiens.

They didn’t need to because of their goaltender.

Tristan Jarry stopped 31 of 32 shots, a couple of those saves of the sensational variety, and the Penguins eventually woke up before cruising to a much-needed 4-1 victory.

“I thought he was terrific,” Mike Sullivan said.

The Penguins are 7 points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the final playoff spot, but they do have four games in hand on the Lightning.

Of course, three other teams — the Washington Capitals, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders — remain ahead of them in the standings.

Still, the Penguins don’t seem resigned to their fate. Rather, they were a bit defiant after the game.

Kyle Dubas is expected to make moves before the trade deadline, and the Penguins will almost certainly be sellers. Dubas did say, however, that the Penguins’ play can determine what he does before the deadline March 8.

Perhaps he’ll make “hockey trades” if the Penguins, in his estimation, can make the playoffs.

His players are well aware of what he said.

“The ball is in our court,” Bryan Rust said. “We have got to prove we’re worth taking a chance on, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”

One thing the Penguins have going for them is their goaltending. It’s been an undeniable strength all season, and Jarry has been excellent for a sustained stretch of play.

“He made some huge saves,” Rust said. “Gotta give a lot of props to him. He’s been great all year long. Just dialed in.”

The Penguins were under heavy pressure in the first period and made matters worse by being especially cavalier with the puck.

Their goaltender kept them in the game during this time.

Kris Letang got the Penguins into the game by scoring his fifth goal of the season on a shot from the right point. He’d later finish off the Canadiens with an empty net goal.

In between, Rust and Drew O’Connor scored two goals within 21 seconds of one another in the second period to put the Penguins ahead to stay.

Up next for the Penguins is a Sunday matinee at home against the Philadelphia Flyers in what is almost certainly a must-win game.

Ten postgame observations

• There were some good facets of this game for the Penguins, and we’ll get to that.

But I first must mention how many horrible starts the Penguins have had recently. They allowed the first five shots of this game. Two nights earlier against the Islanders, they permitted seven of the game’s first eight shots.

It’s nonstop for the Penguins these days. I don’t know if it’s difficult for older teams to get their legs going. Perhaps it’s something else. But the Penguins start games so slowly that it’s often quite painful to watch.

They were fortunate to only be down by one goal 10 minutes into the game because they gave up several wonderful opportunities. Montreal simply skated them off the rink during the game’s first 10 minutes.

• Letang had what could be described as an impactful evening.

His gruesome turnover — he thought Sidney Crosby was expecting a pass, but he wasn’t — led to Montreal’s first goal.

However, Letang was strong the rest of the evening, producing two goals.

There has been a more simple approach evident in Letang’s game this season. He’s the kind of player who prefers the pretty play over the practical one, but he’s receiving the message from Sullivan that more shots on goal are a good thing. The first goal of the game was a clear example.

Letang’s strong season has continued, and this was another good night for him despite the early mishap. He made up for it. And hey, it was his bobblehead night, for what that’s worth.

• P.O Joseph threw two hits that knocked down Canadiens in his first shift of the evening.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him knock anyone down. It’s not his game. His body build doesn’t really allow him to play that physical of a game.

When I see a player do something this uncharacteristic on the game’s first shift, I’m led to believe the coaching staff has informed him he needs to play a more physical game if he wishes to remain in the lineup.

We’ve seen some offensive surges from him in recent games, and his overall play is improving. I don’t see him as part of the Penguins’ long-term plans, but he’s probably at least tradable.

• Sometimes, you immediately get a feel for a player, what he’s capable of, what he’s going to be. Other times, players confuse you when you attempt to analyze them.

Then, there is O’Connor.

Every time I write the guy off, he has a good game. Every time I think he has finally arrived, he goes a 10-game stretch when you barely notice him.

He was good against the Islanders. He was exceptional against the Canadiens.

O’Connor scored on a beautiful shot in the second period.

What impressed me was what O’Connor did on Letang’s first goal. He didn’t just haphazardly plant himself in front of the net, but he did it specifically in a way that makes it very different for goaltenders.

It was truly perfect net-front presence.

I haven’t a clue who the real O’Connor is, but if he keeps playing like that, he’ll have a long NHL career. All of the talent in the world is there.

• Rust is playing some strong hockey right now and scored again on a deflection.

He could have had another goal in the third period but wasn’t ready for a Crosby pass. Still, I really like Rust’s game right now. And I also like what he had to say after the game.

I’d be shocked if the Penguins made the playoffs. The mountain to climb is pretty insurmountable and I just don’t think they’re a good team. But I respect the leaders in that dressing room immensely, and Rust is very much one of them.

• I didn’t get the sense Sullivan was overly delighted with his team’s performance. Oh, he was happy to get 2 points and they were 2 points the Penguins badly needed. But the coach thought his team was sloppy.

And yeah, he’s right. The Penguins were consistently guilty of turning the puck over in the center of the ice in their own territory, which isn’t exactly a place they want to set up the opposition. It wasn’t just Letang on the game’s opening goal. It happened over and over again. There was a general carelessness to their game.

• I didn’t like Erik Karlsson’s game against the Islanders, but I liked his performance against Montreal quite a bit. He had two assists, was smart with the puck all game and made an effort to get shots on net when it was prudent.

Karlsson is at his best when he uses his legs more. We saw this against the Canadiens. The single easiest way for the Penguins to climb back into playoff contention is for Karlsson to keep playing like this.

• Valtteri Puustinen had an interesting evening. He appeared to be benched for a portion of the third period after turning the puck over.

Before then, though, he recorded a helper and enjoyed one of the most dominant shifts we’ve seen from a player all season in the second period. He’s got some serious jump right now. The Penguins could use someone like him becoming a legitimate contributor. Maybe he’s starting to figure out the NHL game. Maybe.

• Josh Anderson collided with Jarry in the third period and I don’t think there was any malicious intent there. Marcus Pettersson went after him anyway, and it was the right move. Too many Penguins just stand around instead of confronting players in these moments. The skinniest guy on the team goes right after them. He’s challenged about half of the heavyweights in the NHL this season and shows absolutely no fear.

The Penguins might well trade many players in the next couple of weeks. I wouldn’t suggest dealing Pettersson, even though they could get a haul for him. Good player. Even better guy. He’s the kind of person they want to keep around for a long time.

• Sunday will mark the final time the Penguins and Flyers meet this season. I’d argue the season is very much on the line for the Penguins, who can’t afford to lose three out of four games on this homestand.

(Photo: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)

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