Ducks fly together; Penguins sink
PITTSBURGH (AP) — John Gibson grew up in Pittsburgh. He downplayed his annual homecoming Saturday night, but his teammates with the Anaheim Ducks understood this wasn’t just any game and it wasn’t just any arena for the 24-year-old who has helped keep them afloat during an uneven first half of the season.
What better way to thank Gibson for hanging in there than helping him shut down the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Gibson turned aside 29 shots and the Ducks pounced on several sloppy mistakes by the Penguins in an easy 4-0 victory.
“It might sound silly, but for us, it was important,” said Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler, who capped the scoring with his fourth goal of the season. “Mainly because of what John’s done for us all season. I mean, he’s stood on his head multiple times and given us opportunities to win hockey games.”
Gibson didn’t quite have to go that far in picking up his first victory in his hometown. The Penguins got to him for five goals last year and six in the 2015-16 season opener. They didn’t get one by him this time.
While he wasn’t particularly busy, Gibson’s night included a sprawling blocker save on Sidney Crosby in the second period that preserved a three-goal lead.
“Just throw something over there and hope (the puck) hits it,” Gibson said.
Rickard Rakell, Andrew Cogliano and Ondrej Kase also scored for the Ducks, who wrapped up a six-game road trip with a flourish.
“I think the last few games, we’ve obviously been playing a lot better, especially defensively,” Gibson said. “I think we’re kind of getting in our zone and feeling confident. Definitely trending in the right direction.”
The Penguins not so much.
Matt Murray made 10 saves on 13 shots before he was pulled early in the second period after Cogliano turned a short-handed breakaway into his fifth goal. The Penguins have lost five of seven and are one point out of last place in the Metropolitan Division.
“We made some big mistakes,” Crosby said. “Sometimes you can make those and get away with them and tonight they were big ones, some Grade A chances that we ended up giving up the other way.”
Two days after an emotionally charged shootout victory over Columbus that the Penguins hoped would be the start of a surge needed to get back in the mix, they instead fell into an all-too familiar pattern of questionable decision-making that ended with their goaltenders exposed and an early deficit.
“When you go down two goals early, it makes for an uphill battle and there’s been a lot of those lately,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
Kase pounced when a lazy and inaccurate cross-ice pass by Kris Letang intended for teammate Brian Dumoulin instead hit the boards behind Dumoulin and bounced toward the middle of the ice. Kase jumped on it, split Dumoulin and Letang and flipped a shot by Murray to put Anaheim up just 3:10 into the game.
Rakell doubled the lead when he took the puck away from newly acquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and slipped a shot by Murray that trickled between the goalie’s pads just past the midway point of the first period.
The Penguins had an early power-play chance in the second, but the momentum vanished quickly. Brandon Montour’s clear for Anaheim skipped by Crosby and went right to Cogliano. He broke in alone and beat Murray between the legs to make it 3-0 at 3:42, and Murray skated to the bench in favor of Tristan Jarry.
While Jarry allowed only Fowler’s power-play goal with just 3.4 seconds to go in the second, the damage was already done, leaving the 502nd consecutive sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena to boo another listless night.
“We show signs of it where we put some games together where we’re playing to the identity that this group has had success with,” Sullivan said. “But we haven’t done it nearly consistently enough this year.”
NOTES: The Ducks finished their road trip 3-2-1. … Anaheim went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 2 with the man advantage. … Pittsburgh scratched D Matt Hunwick and C Dominik Simon. … Anaheim scratched Ds Korbinian Holzer and Andy Welinski and F Dennis Rasmussen.
Ducks: Begin a three-game homestand next Wednesday against Vegas.
Penguins: Face Columbus for the second time in less than a week on Wednesday. Pittsburgh beat the Blue Jackets 3-2 in a shootout on Dec. 21.