Penguins center Sidney Crosby fights to get possession of the puck against Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler before passing to get an assist for his 1,000th career point.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang gets possession against Winnipeg's Mathieu Perreault in the second period Thursday.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For two teams that may not have necessarily known each other well going into the night, the Penguins and Jets sure looked like old rivals once they hit the ice Thursday night.
While the game — which the Penguins won, 4-3, in overtime — will be remembered for Sidney Crosby scoring his 1,000th career point in the first period, it also served as a reminder that as the calendar creeps closer to spring, it doesn’t take much to give even inter-conference games a bit of an edge.
“It’s [that] time of year,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “They’ve got a lot of veterans. We’ve got to bang, we’ve got to compete on every puck. It was a hard game for them to play, and it got to that level real early.”
The two teams came into the game averaging a combined 47.9 hits per game, but the total Thursday was 87, with the Jets holding a 49-38 edge. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t surprised, either, by the physical tone the game took on early.
“I think that’s one of the elements that Winnipeg has, that’s part of their team,” Sullivan said. “They’ve got a big team and they use their size and their strength to try to help them win. That’s their game.”
Things came to a head midway through the third period, when Penguins center Evgeni Malkin hit Jets winger Blake Wheeler and left him on the ice. A scrum formed around Malkin, and once Wheeler got up, he joined in the fray.
Maurice did not answer when asked if he was upset Malkin wasn’t punished more harshly than the double-minor he received.
“We were probably a little more frustrated that we lost the game,” Maurice said.
Wheeler returned to the game shortly thereafter, which makes him luckier than Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz and Olli Maatta, both of whom left after taking some big hits and didn’t return.
“It’s crazy,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “Hell of a game. I don’t think it should have turned that way.”
Both Letang and teammate Chris Kunitz also said the fact that the Penguins had to play nearly half the game with only four defensemen also played into the hands of the Jets’ physical style.
“It was nasty,” Letang said. “It was not pretty. When we went to four D, we tried to play a position game. Sometimes we got in trouble trying to do too much.”
Kunitz praised the play of the four defensemen who soaked up the extra minutes in the second and third period, but said it did take a toll on how the Penguins wanted to play.
“It’s the mindset that you’re going to take a hit to make a play,” Kunitz said. “I think it’s just when you get down a few guys, guys get a few more minutes.
“I think once we got down a couple of D, they knew that they could be physical and put pucks in behind us and they’re going to make it tough for our remaining four to play a lot of minutes. That’s tough for guys to [handle] that workload, especially because we have so many games in so many nights here. But I think our D did a great job. We got off of it.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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