NORFOLK, Va. – The neutral zone was No Man’s Land, or at least no Norfolk Admirals Land for a night at the Scope.
They took the puck between the blue lines. They turned it over. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Trevor Smith, Riley Holzapfel and Chris Collins put it in the net, and the Penguins closed in on an AHL Eastern Conference playoff berth with a 3-2 win Tuesday.
“They have a high-end offensive team that is deadly on the rush,” Pens coach John Hynes said. “It wasn’t so much of a trap. We wanted to have some guys who were above the puck and were committed defensively through the neutral zone.”
They were so committed that they rattled the Admirals, allowing only It got so bad that in the second period that Norfolk’s Devonte Smith-Pelly broke his stick over the Admiral goal after 19 shots all night — and only 12 through two periods in fashioning a 3-0 lead.
On that last goal, Collins’ took advantage of a turnover that started with three Penguins around the puck in the neutral zone and finished with a play that included a 4-on-1 rush.
With Collins, Brian Dumoulin, Adam Payerl and Warren Peters facing Norfolk defenseman Jordan Hendry ahead of goalie Frederik Andersen, Peters wound up to shoot and missed a slapshot. He scrambled for the puck and Andersen turned back his follow shot.
Dumoulin retrieved the puck and sent it to Collins, who wristed it into the net for a 3-0 lead and what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
All that that happened before the Admirals could recover from the turnover. Actually, they recovered just in time for Smith-Pelly to break a $200 hockey stick in anger because of a holding penalty he believed wasn’t called when the play began.
“It was an important play in the game because it was an opportunity for us,” Hynes said of the goal. “You don’t get many of those in a game. … You have to capitalize on them.”
Smith-Pelly got a new stick in time to score a power play goal in the third period that brought things back to 3-2 with 5:36 to play. It followed Kyle Bonis’s first professional goal and put pressure on the Pens.
“We knew they were coming back,” Hynes said. “They’re one of the hottest teams in the league right now, so we knew in the third period that they were going to come with a hard push. To their credit, they did that, and we got back on our heels a bit. We found a way after they scored their second goal to re-group, and there was a short enough amount of time for us to get back to our game to pull it out.”
Norfolk struggled through the neutral zone all night.
The Penguins took advantage of a neutral zone turnover in the opening period, with Cody Wild winding up with the puck. He sent it to Chad Kolarik, who got it to Trevor Smith, with time and space to work on Norfolk goalie Frederik Andersen.
The goalie challenged Smith with a stick, poking the puck slightly into the air. As Smith passed through the crease, he kicked at the disk with his left skate and the puck went into the net. Officials looked at a replay and apparently ruled that Smith missed the puck, but that it went into the net of its own volition off Andersen’s stick.
Smith said the puck went in off his skate, “but I didn’t kick it. I didn’t make a motion to kick it in. I turned my foot, and it just went in.”
Holzapfel made it 2-0 in the second period when he beat Andersen’s glove side from a tough angle.
Goalie Jeff Zatkoff was the beneficiary of all of that, turning back 17 shots in winning for the 23rd time in 42 decisions.