Yohe’s 10 observations: Alex Nedeljkovic gives Penguins a much needed win

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PITTSBURGH — Alex Nedeljkovic didn’t quite make the defending champions look as inept as the Steelers offense, but he did well enough.

Nedeljkovic, a very proud Cleveland Browns fan who wore a Myles Garrett jersey in the locker room following Sunday’s game, pitched a shutout against the Vegas Golden Knights to finish off a very good day for the goaltender in the 3-0 Pittsburgh Penguins’ victory.

Nedeljkovic stopped all 38 shots that he faced in his first NHL game sustaining an injury against Dallas on Oct. 24.

He took the intelligent approach when asked to choose between whether the Penguins or Browns’ victory was bigger on this day.

“It was a big win for us,” he said with a smile. “Tough night last night in Carolina. The guys played hard. Didn’t get the result. But to split the back-to-back, I think we’ll take that.”

It was indeed an important victory for the Penguins, who are in the midst of a particularly difficult stretch of schedule. They had dropped their previous two games after winning five straight.

They didn’t just beat the defending champs but methodically took control.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your goaltender stays calm, exhibits excellent rebound control and looks razor-sharp throughout the evening.

That’s precisely what Nedeljkovic gave the Penguins on Sunday.

“He was our best player tonight,” Lars Eller said. “I’m happy for him to be back in the lineup, and to come back like this? I don’t think there’s a better to come back in net. Ned’s feeling good. He deserves it.”

Nedeljkovic had a rehab start with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday and not only looked sharp in that game, but scored a goal for the third time in his career.

He described the rehab stint as “a little chaotic” but also noted that it was “huge” to get his timing and conditioning in good order.

Nedeljkovic looked perfectly in control against the defending champs. His rebound control was excellent all game, he confidently played aggressively at the top of the crease and was simply outstanding all night.

“Ned was great,” Noel Acciari said. “It was like he was never out.”

Ryan Graves and Acciari scored their first goals as Penguins to put the Penguins ahead 2-0. Evgeni Malkin ended things with an empty-netter.

The Penguins gave up a number of shots but not many of them were of the threatening variety. Threatening or not, Nedeljkovic was there to slam the door.

“Huge effort by him coming back,” Mike Sullivan said. “I think the game he was able to play for Wilkes-Barre really helped him. I give him a lot of credit for putting the time and work in to prepare himself.”

Ten postgame observations 

• Nedeljkovic’s taste in football teams might be questionable, but he is from Cleveland, so let’s give him a break.

I suspect he’s about to become a very popular guy in Pittsburgh, in fact. He’s a very personable young man. Everyone — and I mean everyone — in the organization loves this guy. He always has a smile on his face and has a great sense of humor.

And, I might add, I think he might be a pretty good goaltender.

Nedeljkovic isn’t particularly big but he is exceptionally athletic. He’s been very good in two of his three starts this season and his performance throughout training camp was outstanding.

He made his NHL debut with Carolina and put up dazzling numbers during the 2020-21 season. Then, he largely struggled during his time in Detroit.

Carolina has a tendency to make goaltenders look better than they are because of the outstanding defense played in Raleigh. I’d suggest that the opposite is probably true in Detroit.

So, the jury is out on Nedeljkovic. But the talent is very, very evident.

• Simply put, the Penguins played a smart game.

They didn’t give up many odd-man rushes. There weren’t any blown assignments. They weren’t perfect by any stretch, but they played a sound defensive game. This has been a noteworthy theme in many of their signature victories this season.

Remember, they’ve now shut out the Avalanche and Golden Knights. For that matter, they’ve also blanked the Capitals, Sabres and Ducks.

No other NHL team has more than three shutouts this season. The Penguins, hardly known for their attention to detail defensively, have five.

They have it in them to play this way and should continue. Sullivan’s team got away from that way of playing in a victory against Columbus, and it showed in the subsequent losses to New Jersey and Carolina.

The Penguins aren’t good enough to freewheel. They need to play smart. They did against Vegas.

• Graves has been disappointing in his first six weeks with the Penguins.

He hasn’t been a train wreck, but he hasn’t been good.

Graves started the scoring in the first period and this isn’t worth ignoring.

Sure, Graves is more in the “defensive defenseman” mold. He scored eight goals in New Jersey last season and six the year before. He scored nine goals in the 2019-20 season.

No, he’s not Erik Karlsson. But Graves does possess a hard shot and it would be helpful if he were to occasionally add some offense.

• The power play continues to be a problematic issue for the Penguins.

It’s a twofold problem.

The Penguins’ power play stinks right now, yes. But it also isn’t getting many opportunities. The Penguins have earned among the fewest amount of power plays per game and again only had two against Vegas.

In the first period, their first power play didn’t score but looked dangerous.

The second one was awful.

A lack of net-front presence continues to be the biggest issue.

• Acciari’s goal gave the Penguins some breathing room.

It was his first goal with the Penguins and it needs to continue. The fourth line has been very poor this season and, while Acciari and Matt Nieto are excellent penalty killers, the lack of offense from the fourth line is a major problem.

• The Penguins were especially good in the third period.

They have a tendency to focus on trying to score as many goals as possible, which explains why they make so many foolish plays while protecting leads. That habit wasn’t on display against Vegas. Rather, the Penguins slowed the game down, got pucks deep and played playoff-style hockey.

I didn’t think Vegas had a lot of juice in this game, but still, it was a solid performance. The Penguins essentially beat the Golden Knights at their own game, which isn’t easy.

• Kris Letang has been great this season and received a nice hand from the crowd for reaching the 700-point milestone.

However, he probably had his worst game of the season. Especially early in the game, Letang was a turnover machine.

As I always say, Letang has about four or five games a season when he looks completely off and makes a number of baffling plays. This was one of those games. But the Penguins won, anyway.

Given how Letang has played this season, he’ll be back on track when the Penguins return to action.

• A number of amusing things happened in this game.

In the first period, Malkin broke his stick. He went to the bench, looking for another stick. Jeff Carter gave him his stick, which was a kind gesture, until you realize that Malkin is left-handed and Carter is right-handed. Malkin played about 30 seconds with the right-handed stick.

Later in the game, Crosby broke his stick and went to the bench to get another. Malkin gave him his stick. Apparently, Crosby didn’t like it, because he threw it to the ice a few seconds after grabbing it.

Crosby and Malkin also played soccer — kind of — while they were without their respective sticks.

Speaking of being amused, Nedeljkovic drew some laughs in the locker room when asked about a sequence late in the game. The Penguins were ahead 2-0 when the puck came to the goaltender. He was going to attempt to score again. As he was lining up a potential shot, though, Letang swooped in and took the puck.

“You’ll have to ask that question to Tanger,” he said. “I’m not too sure where he was going there at the end.”

One another thing that probably didn’t amuse the captain … Sidney Crosby’s 11-game scoring streak ended. Malkin had Crosby open at the blue line late in the game with the goalie pulled, but opted to shoot into the empty net himself.

• Vegas has a great team and was a very worthy champion last season.

However, the Golden Knights looked pretty sluggish in this one. They didn’t make much of a third-period push.

• Up next for the Penguins is the traditional home game on Thanksgiving Eve and it comes against the red-hot Rangers.

It will be the best atmosphere of the season, and it could require one of the Penguins’ best performances of the season to handle the surging Rangers.

(Photo: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)

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