The Pittsburgh Penguins have way too many days off in October. That much is for sure. But the slow start for the Pens allows for the team to get in plenty of practice and continue to get accustomed to Mike Johnston’s style of play. Although, if we judge based on the first two outings for the Pens, they’ve become accustomed very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, though. There are still things that need fixing. But let’s focus on the good first.
Top Six Forwards
Mike Johnston got this one very right. He opted to put Evgeni Malkin on the right wing with Brandon Sutter as his center, along with Pascal Dupuis switching to the left side, to make up the team’s second line. The first line, meanwhile, features Sidney Crosby centering mainstay Chris Kunitz and newcomer Patric Hornqvist. The chemistry has developed quickly for both lines. They are both creating a great number of chances at even strength, and forcing teams to take penalties, which has led to another great thing (more on that in a moment). This is forcing discussion as to whether Malkin should remain on Sutter’s wing indefinitely, and whether Crosby could set new career highs in points. It is still way too early to think too much about either of those issues. But the fact that these things are even in play tells us about how well things are going for the top two lines.
Bottom Six Forwards
Yep, these guys are contributing on a very encouraging level, if not on the scoresheet then certainly with the fancy stats. They are keeping possession of the puck for long stretches, they are rarely getting hemmed inside their own zone, and they are allowing Johnston to roll his lines and get his top lines into great situations. Everything works hand in hand for the forward lines. If the bottom six are going well, the top six are able to get advantages against their opponents, whether it be zone starts or facing lesser opposition or even exhausted opposition. This is very encouraging.
The biggest aspect of being able to keep possession of the puck has been the way the Pens have escaped their zone with speed and oftentimes with little resistance. This system is much different than what we are used to seeing from the last several years. I am not an expert on these things, but from my untrained eye, it is a night and day difference. The defensemen are using their speed and puck-handling to a much greater degree. Long stretch passes are not being forced. Forwards are coming back and supporting their defense, and allowing more options to get the puck up the ice. If this continues as expected, this will be a big reason for the Pens’ success.
The Power Play
The power play is often a source of frustration, if only because of the two most talented players on the team. Crosby and Malkin should be able to coexist and create great results on the man advantage. But they have struggled to do so at times, most notably in the playoffs against the Rangers. In the first two games, though, things have been different. The element that Kunitz and Hornqvist provide, with their puck retrieval, net crashing, and quality shots, has allowed the other three gentlemen on the top unit (Crosby, Malkin, Letang) to exhibit their skills while keeping their play simple. Again, it’s early, so we don’t want to make assumptions, but if trends continue, the power play will be a threat all season long, and there will be very few games without a Pens PPG.
The Penalty Kill
The main issue may be a lack of discipline leading to too many penalties taken by the Penguins. But the penalty kill certainly is doing nothing to help out the men who have made those transgressions. This is a lot more on the defense than the forwards, but no one is immune to criticism. There needs to be better coverage in the slot and around the net. Corey Perry only left the slot when he wanted to, not because a defender put an iota of pressure on him. This has a lot to do with the type of defensemen on the team. All six that are currently in the lineup are not bulky, none take the body on a regular basis, and all tend to rely on positioning and stick checking around the net. This is not a great style of defense to effectively clear out the high-traffic areas. The return of Robert Bortuzzo will help to some extent, but this will primarily need to improve based on the team’s abilities to prevent passes and shots from the perimeter. Fair or unfair, the forwards and the goaltending will have to step up to reduce the pressure on the D.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s Puckhandling
I think that too many people criticize MAF for this issue. I usually have no problem with him going behind the net, stopping pucks, and setting them up for his D. However, Marc needs to be more decisive. The worst thing he can do is linger with the puck outside of his crease. Even if he just ushers the puck away to a corner, he just needs to do it. I don’t expect him to have issues throughout the season. But he will eliminate them entirely if he just makes a quick decision and rolls with it.
The Week Ahead
The Pens have another light week, with just two games on the schedule, both at home. First up, the Pens take on the Dallas Stars. The Stars have been a trendy sleeper for a lot of league-wide writers. They have high-end skill with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and an immensely talented (albeit inconsistent) goaltender in Kari Lehtonen. They are 1-1-1 through three contests, and their last game was a 4-2 victory in Columbus Tuesday night. The Stars gave the Pens fits last season, especially in Dallas. This will be a great game to see where the Pens truly are at this point.
Another “measuring stick” game comes up Saturday, as the Pens will host the currently undefeated New York Islanders. Yes, you read that correctly. The Islanders are sitting at 3-0-0 after their first week. They are coming off a 6-3 win over their crosstown rival, the Rangers. They have impressively racked up 15 goals in those three games, and they are being led by John Tavares and Brock Nelson from the forwards, as well as new addition Johnny Boychuk on the back end. The Islanders sure appear to be for real so far, and both teams will learn a fair amount from their matchup.
Again, I cannot say this enough. We are two games in. There are still eighty to go. But there are a lot of things to be encouraged about for the Pens. And it is just great to have hockey back. Enjoy it, folks…