Rickard Rakell had to make one of two choices.
Shoot or fire.
He chose wisely.
Especially since the recipient of his passport was Sidney Crosby.
An overtime score by Crosby after a hiccup-fast feed from Rakell during a furious three-on-three sequence gave the Penguins a much-needed 3-2 home win against the Nashville Predators at the PPG Paints Arena on Sunday.
The victory broke the season’s worst losing streak in four games and saved, perhaps more importantly, the team’s declining mood.
“It was a good moral booster for us,” said Penguin goalkeeper Casey DeSmith. “Especially to do it in overtime at home, where Sid wins. It’s a good feeling.”
Rakell and Crosby combined in one way or another on all three of the Penguins’ goals. Oddly enough, the pair were not necessarily put together on a line during the competition. They were just by chance on the ice during some incoherent line breaks.
“Obviously they were linked with a couple of important goals tonight,” Penguin coach Mike Sullivan said. “(Rakell) made two amazing games for Sid when Sid finished them. Just amazing sight, great awareness of knowing where he is and getting him the puck. It could potentially be an opportunity for us to move on.”
The dynamic duo combined on the first goal of the competition 4:58 for regulation. Predators goalkeeper David Rittich got a dump-in on his own end boards and chipped the puck to the right half wall to Predators defender Mark Borowiecki, who lost ball possession thanks to a pinch from Penguins defender Kris Letang. Rakell claimed the puck low in the right circle and slipped a pass to Crosby who crashed in from the left wing. Crosby leaned down and snatched once past Rittich’s block on the nearest side to his 27th goal of the season. Rakell and Letang had assists.
The match was a draw, 1-1, 18:49 in the first period. After Penguin forward Jason Zucker lost the puck on the right wing on the offensive blue line, Predator forward Mikael Granlund claimed possession. From the field in his own zone, Granlund snapped a stretch pass to linemate Matt Duchene at the Penguins’ blue line. When Penguin defender Marcus Pettersson tripped over the ice, the Duches rushed past him, creating his own outburst, putting DeSmith on his knees and putting a wrist over his block to his 38th goal. Granlund got the only assist.
A little happened in the second period. At least not before the period was over.
Just as the second break began, Penguin strikers Evgeni Malkin and Borowiecki were embroiled in a confrontation. Malkin cut Borowiecki’s stick out of his hands and cross-checked him in the mouth, apparently causing Borowiecki to lose a handful of teeth.
Malkin received a double lesser penalty for high sticking, while Borowiecki, who did not return to the match, received a gross lesser.
There was no word on any potential complementary discipline from the NHL for Malkin’s actions or Borowiecki’s status after the match.
The Predators took their only lead 4:31 into the third period. Out of a two-on-one rush, Predators striker Colton Sissons struck a wrist on the net from the Penguins’ right circle. After DeSmith started a rebound, Sissons got the puck on the right wing along the goal line and threw a backhander back into the cage that hit the far post and jumped to the front of the fold. Penguin defender Mike Matheson claimed the puck and lifted a weak clearing attempt that was intercepted over the hash marks by Predators striker Nick Cousins. Using Matheson as a screen, Cousins grabbed and ripped a wrist past DeSmith’s block for his eighth goal. There were no assists.
Zuckers seventh goal of the season tied the game, 2-2, at 8:53 of the third. Rakell pushed the game into the offensive zone and crossed with Crosby close to the center, leaving a drop pass. From above the right circle, Crosby centered a forehand pass to Zucker. To protect the puck from Predators striker Eeli Tolvanen, Zucker lifted a pedestrian backhander that creaked between Rittich’s glove and his left rib. Crosby and Rakell recorded assists.
Overthrown in parts of the last four months due to a core muscle injury, Zucker found the net for the first time since January 17th.
“The fact that he reacted like he went out and scored a huge goal for us at a key time, I think was a huge boost for our bench,” Sullivan said. “You could see his reaction from his teammates. It’s a window into what they think of him.”
In overtime, Rakell’s quick thinking ended a wild sequence that led to victory.
With the advantage of open ice provided by three-on-three play, Matheson made an insane line from the neutral zone to the Predators’ net, only to lose the puck before getting a shot off. Rittich shoveled the puck away with his stick and let Granlund take control.
Before Granlund could even consider his options, Crosby stormed in and stole the puck. Covering around Predator’s defender Mattias Ekholm in the fold, Crosby forced a pass to Matheson, placed to the right of the fold. Ekholm’s stick broke that pass attempt, which made the puck slide to hashmarks.
From there, Rakell put it in, forged a slap, pulled his cane down and pushed the puck coolly to the left of the fold for Crosby, who struck his second goal of the match (and the 28th of the season) at 4:58 p.m. .
“I was definitely thinking of (shooting with) first,” Rakell admitted. “But it felt like they (Predators) were all coming out of me. Sit (was) at the back door. So I was just trying to get it to him. It was nice to see it go in. Otherwise, I would regret not shot it. ”
There was little to regret with DeSmith, who offered one of his more resolute performances of the season as he made 33 saves on 35 shots and his record was improved to 8-4-4.
“He was amazing,” Crosby said of DeSmith. “He made some huge saves. The ones that – like from the bench, a couple of them – were supposed to be almost safe goals. And he found a way to get a pillow on or make a save and keep us inside the game.”
And restore some confidence in a team that has struggled lately.
“This is a proud group and when you go through a stretch where you lose a few games, everyone feels it,” Sullivan said. “It’s an important victory for us.”
• The Penguins avoided their first losing streak in five or more games since a losing streak in six games they had in the 2019-20 season (February 20-29) a few weeks before the pandemic stopped the game in the NHL (and just about everything in professional sport).
• Matheson recorded a giant major at. 7:54 in the second period as he battled rough-and-tumble Predators forward Tanner Jeannot. That match happened moments after Jeannot dropped Letang with a heavy check in the Penguins’ zone.
• Jeannot leads the NHL with 13 fights this season. In contrast, the Penguins have a total of 12 fighting majors this season.
-It was only the second fighting major in Matheson’s career. As a member of the Florida Panthers, he battled Boston Bruins striker David Backes on March 16, 2018.
• Crosby’s overtime goal was his 1,400. career point. He also appeared in his 1,100. career games.
• Crosby (1,400) surpassed Hockey Hall of Fame striker Jari Kurri (1,398) to a 22nd-place finish on the NHL’s career scoring list.
• DeSmith (40 wins) surpassed Gary Inness (39) for 15th place on the franchise’s career goalie winning list.
• Rakell now has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 20 career games against the Predators.
• The Penguins’ last overtime win of the regular season against the Predators came in a 2-1 away win on October 24, 2015. Striker Phil Kessel scored the winning goal.
• The Predators’ last away game against the Penguins came in a 6-4 loss on December 28, 2019. Penguins striker Bryan Rust had two goals and two assists in that game.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .