The Pittsburgh Penguins have spent much of the first six weeks of the season grappling with injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak.
One of their few constants has been the play of goaltender Tristan Jarry, whose playoff flameout last spring seems to be an increasingly small speck in his rear-view mirror.
Jarry made 36 saves during a 4-1 victory over Vancouver on Wednesday that pushed Pittsburgh’s winning streak to four. It’s a surge that’s coincided with Jarry’s remarkable return to form. The 26-year-old has stopped 116 of the last 118 shots he’s faced and at one point had the Thanksgiving Eve crowd at PPG Paints Arena chanting his name.
“You can see him back there challenging shots and playing great, reading plays,” Penguins forward Bryan Rust said. “I think his rebound control has been phenomenal. ... He’s been phenomenal. It’s been fun to watch.”
Rust and Zach Aston-Reese both ended extended goal droughts – 10 games for Rust, 21 for Aston-Reese – and Brock McGinn and Evan Rodrigues also scored for Pittsburgh. The Penguins have overwhelmed opponents during their four-game run, outscoring Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver by a combined score of 15-2.
“I think we’re building,” Rust said. “Over that Canadian trip, we had some good moments. ... That third period in Winnipeg, we were good from the first shift on. We were able to build on it tonight. ... For the most part we’re trending in the right direction.”
Thatcher Demko made 33 saves for the Canucks. Bo Horvat scored his sixth goal of the season – Vancouver’s first marker in 147:58 of game time – but couldn’t stop the Canucks from falling to 1-6-1 in their last eight games.
“It’s exhausting,” Horvat said. “We talk about the same things all the time. I think it has to come from within. It has to come from us in the room.”
Vancouver’s NHL-worst penalty kill allowed a goal for the 15th time in 20 contests and Vancouver frequently left Demko to fend for himself behind a series of careless turnovers and shoddy play.
Even Pittsburgh’s 32nd-ranked power play – an anomaly mostly brought on by the extended absence of star centre Sidney Crosby, among others – showed signs of life.
Vancouver came in allowing opponents to convert a staggering 37% of the time with the man advantage, but managed to turn away two power plays by the Penguins in the first period.
The Canucks weren’t so fortunate in the second. Rust stood in the left circle and hammered home a one-timer off a pass from Kris Letang 49 seconds into the second to give Pittsburgh the lead.
Rodrigues, who has thrived after being elevated above the fourth line out of necessity due to injury and illness, doubled the Penguins’ advantage 7:29 into the second thanks in large part to a baffling miscue by defenceman Quinn Hughes.
Hughes got tangled up deep in Vancouver’s zone and rather than drop the puck behind the net to a teammate, instead opted to send a cross-ice pass to nowhere. The puck went right to Rodigues, who faked a pass before rifling a wrist shot from the left circle that zipped to the far post and into the net for his seventh goal of the season and the 100th point of his seven-year career.
Vancouver responded by making an extended push only to have Jarry make a series of masterful stops, including a couple from point-blank range. His last name echoed throughout the arena after one sequence, a far cry from the scene last spring when his shaky play contributed heavily to a first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders.
Aston-Reese essentially put things out of reach late in the second period, when he converted at the end of a three-on-one break for his first goal since last April.
“Happy to get the first one (of the season) out of the way and hopefully there’s more to come,” Aston-Reese said.
Horvat spoiled Jarry’s bid for his third shutout in four games when he stuffed a backhander from in close by the goaltender with 5:08 remaining in regulation. The Canucks pulled Demko with more than 2 minutes to play but McGinn’s empty-netter quelled any shot at a rally.
Jake Guentzel’s secondary assist on Rust’s goal gave him at least one point in 10 of his last 11 games. ... Pittsburgh F Brian Boyle was a healthy scratch for the fifth consecutive game. ... Penguins C Evgeni Malkin continues to skate on his own while recovering from knee surgery in June. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said there remains no timetable on when Malkin might be cleared to skate with his teammates but added “we have a ballpark idea of when we think he’ll be available.”
Canucks: Continue a five-game road trip on Friday when they visit Columbus.
Penguins: Travel to New York on Friday to face the Islanders.