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5 Points on Penguins First Six Games



Juuso Riikola Pittsburgh Penguins
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 16: Pittsburgh Penguins Defenseman Juuso Riikola (50) handles the puck during the third period in the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vancouver Canucks on October 16, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. The Vancouver Canucks defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Frustration followed the Pittsburgh Penguins from their disappointing 2017-18 season to the first six games of this season. Despite an enthusiastic training camp, the Penguins stumbled out of the gate with a 2-1-2 record including an overtime loss to the inferior Vancouver Canucks and a regulation loss and a shootout loss to Montreal.

The season changed Thursday in Toronto as the Penguins rode roughshod over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-0.

5. Mike Sullivan Still Has This Team

A few years into the Mike Sullivan administration, through a couple of assistant coaches on the forward side of the bench and nearly unimaginable success, Sullivan still has control of the team.

That’s not surprising, but continued malaise would have assuredly brought questions. The Toronto game was far more significant than simply a solid team effort. Sullivan installed a new style of play, Thursday. The Penguins relied less on the rush and more on cycling. Read the full analysis here. 

4. Riikola is Going to Be Good

Rookie defenseman Juuso Riikola is going to be a good defenseman for a long time. However, he’s not there yet. Perhaps I’m a contrarian, but pump the brakes on the euphoria about his play. He’s still mishandling a fair amount of pucks and not making quick enough decisions with the puck in his own zone.

His development will be one of the more fun things to watch this season. Development is rarely a straight line. There will be ups and downs, but it appears the Penguins are ready to ride Riikola regardless if he coughs up a few pucks.

3. Keep Challenging Murray

Did anyone else wonder if DeSmith’s strong play pushed Murray to a dominant game, Thursday? If Murray’s mediocre performance continued, perhaps a cardboard cutout of Marc-Andre Fleury in the opposite locker stall would work.

Murray’s glove has been better this season. As the soft goals disappear, Murray’s performance will look better. As the Penguins protect Murray, his performance will look much better.

Murray is still a bit of a question mark. He’ll need to play more games like Thursday to slay any doubts.

2. Stop Piling on Dominik Simon and Jack Johnson

Neither guy is a fan favorite. Perhaps fan frustration with Simon extends from view the coaching staff favors Simon over Daniel Sprong, and if Simon were out of the way, Sprong would magically be elevated in the lineup (the view is false, but that won’t stop the belief).

Simon is a 12th NHL forward with some offensive upside, good wheels and a high hockey IQ. It’s been a rough start to the season for Simon, but not bad enough to even consider cutting bait.

Johnson. I could write thousands of words on the strengths of Johnson’s game (but I already have) and the added dimensions he brings to the Penguins. Note the shift charts and the Penguins forwards Johnson often sees ahead of him; Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. No defenseman will have good advanced stats with that headwind.

The question is if Johnson is defending his zone well. And he is. Yes, he’s been beaten a couple of times. Just like every other defenseman. The last two games have been his best two games, and he continues to get more comfortable.

1. Daniel Sprong

I don’t see it. His game is not progressing at an acceptable rate. His offense is stifled. It’s just not coming together. Sprong likely gets a seat soon.

He’s not earned anything more than fourth line ice time and actually has earned less. He may get a bump to Derick Brassard’s line, but only because the SCHutdown line (Sheahan-Cullen-Hornqvist) was ruthlessly effective.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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3 years ago

Sprong is a bust, he has been around the organization since starting with the Pens at Dallas in October 2015, he hasn’t developed or has showed progression. He seems lost on the ice a majority of the time.

3 years ago

DeSmith’s play has nothing to do with Murray’s play. The whole “MAF” thing needs to go away. He’s gone so move on. Two years ago MAF was there and had a high 3 GAA and Murray played awesome all year. He was never challenged by MAF and still played fantastic. The guy is still young and people like you act like he’s a 5-6 year Vet.

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