Kasperi Kapanen was one of the better Pittsburgh Penguins players on a night when much went wrong and then much went right. The Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 5-4 in OT, but Kapanen, who was cleared from the NHL COVID/travel protocols on Sunday only played 10 minutes on Tuesday night.
Even as he set up the first Penguins goal.
Even as Twitter demanded Kapanen play more often.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan surprised everyone by putting Kapanen on the fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Colton Sceviour. He’s been penciled in to play on the Penguins top line. Surely, the Penguins didn’t give up a lottery draft pick for the 24-year-old winger for Sullivan to play him for just 10 minutes?
Relax, there was a plan.
“It’s not an easy thing when you’re in quarantine and you’ve been skating by yourself back home in Finland, but not being in a team environment in a long time,” Sullivan said. “He’s only had two practices. One with the taxi squad and one team practice (Monday).”
Sullivan was winding towards the explanation; Kapanen wasn’t ready to play 20 minutes of top-line duty with Sidney Crosby, especially in a knock-down, drag-out brawl with the Washington Capitals. After a week locked away in quarantine and being stuck in Finland despite applying for a visa in October, Kapanen hasn’t had much live game action since the Toronto bubble in August when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“That’s a tough challenge for a player. We didn’t want to put him in a difficult circumstance. That’s why we started him on the fourth line. He got a few shifts with Sid’s line. He got the odd shift with (Malkin’s) line,” Sullivan said. “We tried to manage his minutes and that 10 minutes is important for him; just the spatial awareness of being on the ice with 10 players…”
Twitter may not be convinced, but Sullivan made a good argument.
In that limited time, Kasperi Kapanen was able to set up the Penguins’ first goal when he raced out of the defensive zone with the puck and carried it into the offensive zone. Kapanen’s wrister became a loose puck Colton Sceviour to knock into the net and give the Penguins hope.
“I was just trying to use my speed and get a shot on net,” Kapanen said. “Colton did a good job of crashing the net … I think our line played pretty decent today.”
The advanced metrics were a bit eye-popping. When Kapanen was on the ice, the Penguins had 14 of 17 shot attempts, seven of eight scoring chances, and they amassed three high-danger scoring chances without giving up one. All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
Not a bad night’s work.
Individually, Kapanen attempted two shots and had one scoring chance. The eye test was also pretty good as Kapanen set tongues wagging to see more.
Though Sullivan cautioned it may be a while before Kapanen is swimming in the deep end.
“Having missed all of training camp, it just kind of set him back. We’re going to have to find creative ways to get him up to speed and this was one we thought could expedite the process,” Sullivan continued. “I thought he played pretty well (Tuesday night). You could see his explosive skating ability. He ended up helping out on one of the goals we got. He handles the puck well. He’s a good playmaker (and) he’s got a good shot.”
Indeed, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford went all in to acquire Kapanen in August. When other teams that coveted the Toronto Maple Leafs winger were deterred by the price tag, Rutherford paid it in the form of a first-round lottery pick (15th overall).
The Penguins have a lot riding on Kasperi Kapanen.
“We just have to make sure we slowly but surely get him in shape to a point where we can point him in a position to succeed,” Sullivan said.