Penguins 2, Red Wings 1 (OT-SO): Pens Finally Solve The Great Jimmy Howard

I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to notice / mention this, so please credit my astute powers of observationalism, but what in the world is going on with the Detroit Red Wings?

The Penguins outshot Detroit 47-24 on Sunday afternoon, just two days after Detroit gave up 48 shots to Nashville (and won). Granted, Detroit’s dealing with some injuries, but I can’t comprehend how missing Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom — two dudes who never step more than six inches from the opposing goaltender — could contribute to Detroit magically turning from an 18-shots-against per game machine of boredom to some Western Conference Panthers-esque shooting gallery.

Equally baffling to the Red Wings’ sudden defensive struggles is the emergence of Jimmy Howard, a 2003 second-round pick with seven career NHL starts before this season and one career win, who’s been playing absolutely out of his mind, posting a .928 Save Percentage in the midst of Detroit’s malaise and turning in the most dominant goaltending performance the Penguins have faced this season (save Antti Niemi’s game in December. SAVE – get it??? I just won the Grammy for COMEDY).

Thankfully, the Pens outlasted Howard’s ridiculous performance by nabbing a shootout win; Crosby improved to 6-for-7 on shootouts this season, which is ridiculous and could be a tiebreaking factor in an eventual MVP debate, but not quite as unexpected as Evgeni Malkin actually scoring in a shootout, improving his lifetime shootout numbers to 1-for-7 billion. How has he gone 7 billion times? The Pens have had a lot of shootouts.

Even if the Pens hadn’t grabbed the extra point, though it would’ve been frustrating, they would’ve had to have been encouraged by their comprehensively dominant performance against the Red Wings. They faced a prominent, slumping Western Conference team at home, and absolutely outskated them and outchanced them from start to finish. Dan Byslma seemed even more line-juggle-happy than usual, tossing Malkin on Jordan Staal’s wing for the majority of the game to disrupt Detroit’s normal automatic willingness to use Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Zetterberg against Crosby’s line, and it definitely worked; if Staal keeps generating chances at the rate he did Sunday, he’ll finish the season in the neighborhood of 90 goals.

Perhaps the fact that the Pens dominated Detroit more completely than they’ve dominated any other team in over a month — including the careening Rangers — underscores just how badly the Red Wings are struggling right now. Sure, getting their tandem of Swedish goalie-interferers back should help offensively, but something’s gonna have to seriously click back in place for the Wings in these next couple months or they’re gonna be first-round cannon fodder for the red hot Hawks or Sharks. Even if they’re just going through a midseason malaise that they’ll snap out of come playoff time, there’s a big difference between “not playing quite as urgently” and “giving up 40 shots every single night”.

Pens host Buffalo on Versus tonight. Ah well — watching them actually outskate a team was fun while it lasted. Hopefully at least one of Staal’s shots can hit off the post and go in.

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