AFTERMATH: Penguins play it straight after 5-3 loss to Leafs

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Phil Kessel face

Give the Penguins credit: They solemnly moved around their dressing room after Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Toronto at Air Canada Centre and said all the right things about the good and the bad of their performance.

No one strayed from the script to acknowledge the reality of the situation: Between Phil Kessel’s slump-busting goal, Sidney Crosby’s Rocket Richard insurance goal, a good workout for Marc-Andre Fleury and zero new injuries, the night actually went really well, even in a losing effort. The Penguins sat six regulars and used a lineup that required more than 16 minutes of ice time out of Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, Carter Rowney and Josh Archibald up front, and they still came within a few late-game goals of driving a knife into the heart of Toronto fans.

Mike Sullivan put the game under his microscope just like any other.

“I thought we had moments during the game where we were playing the game the right way and we had possession time,” Sullivan said. “We had moments when we didn’t.

“I thought we could’ve done a little bit of a better job at the (blue) lines, just marking harder plays. We talked before the game about forcing them to have to play that 200-foot game and making sure we get above the puck and above people, make them come through numbers. There were situations when we had numbers back, and we still gave something up because of our lack of awareness away from the puck. But for the most part, I know our guys competed.”

Sullivan did some experimenting, most notably by choosing to keep Justin Schultz and Ian Cole apart on the back end. Schultz, skating with Hainsey, finished with an even five-on-five shot attempt differential (20 for, 20 against). Cole, partnered with Trevor Daley, spent a ton of time in the defensive zone, as evidenced by his minus-15 five-on-five shot attempt differential (6 for, 21 against). Daley finished at minus-19 (7 for, 26 against).

For at least one more day, the Penguins are free to experiment with combinations and explain away the ups and downs of their performances without fear of critical follow-ups. They don’t need reminders from fans and media members of what looms in the days ahead. The newest motivational sign in the dressing rooms reads, “Playoff Identity.”

 

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