The Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase was aflutter with a singular sentiment after the Penguins comeback win over the Buffalo Sabres, Tuesday. The Penguins are back! The Penguins turned the corner! And, while the excitement spread like wildfire, its veracity remains to be seen. The Penguins flashed their trademark resolve, Tuesday but their issues were ever-present. Now, they have a real test on the road in Ottawa, tonight.
Let’s be brutally honest about a few things. First, the Penguins should have beaten the lowly Buffalo Sabres. It was a home game for the Penguins and not part of another masochistic scheduler’s tormented group of games in a short period. The Penguins had a short flight home from Nashville, Saturday and plenty of rest.
The Penguins won the game. They scored five goals. But, the Penguins did not play well. Anyone care to count the odd-man breaks the Penguins defense surrendered? The number of careless or sloppy turnovers in their own zone, including one by Sidney Crosby to begin the second period, which Jack Eichel stuffed into the net. Count the number of great saves Matt Murray was forced to make on wonderful scoring chances allowed. The Penguins took bad penalties and the penalty kill again yielded multiple goals to the opposition.
The Penguins were bad in the first period and staked Buffalo a 2-0 lead. Despite the Penguins dominance of the puck over the remaining 40 minutes, they still had to overcome three separate Buffalo Sabre leads.
No, the gritty truth is: The Penguins did not play well, Tuesday but Patric Hornqvist refused to lose. He and Conor Sheary rode to the rescue like the cavalry in an old western movie.
The Penguins defense made more bad decisions than kids on the South Side on Friday night. The pinched at inopportune moments, in an effort to create offense. They left open men in the dirty scoring areas. It was not a performance to brag about.
The Penguins forwards were complicit in the struggles. They too were sloppy with the puck and put the defense in bad positions on numerous occasions. Watch the lovely defensive zone coverage by Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin here:
That play was about Kyle Okposo outworking four Penguins.
Forgive me for not joining the chorus of praise. There were bright spots. And moments to build from, such as Sidney Crosby’s goal and offense from third line wingers. However, to proclaim the Penguins as “back” is premature.
Since last we saw the Ottawa Senators push the Penguins to double-overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, they’ve made some changes. You may have heard or read about their trade for Matt Duchene. He’s pretty good.
The Senators are a tight defensive team (Guy Boucher’s trap has flaws which the Penguins solved) but they are now offensively potent and still physical, to boot.
Bobby Ryan is also returning to the lineup tonight after missing eight games because of a broken finger. Ryan figures to pair up with Duchene for form a formidable pair of scoring lines for the Senators.
Mark Stone, 25, has been in beast mode on the Senators top line, beside pivot Derrick Brassard. The right winger has 19 points (12g, 7a) in 16 games. On the left side of that line is Mike Hoffman, who is also scoring at a point-per-game clip. Hoffman has 16 points (6g, 10a) in the same 16 games.
The Senators are also deep down the middle beyond Duchene and Brassard, J-G Pageau and Nate Thompson anchor a pair of physical lines.
And, you may remember the Ottawa Senators defense. It’s without Marc Methot, but the Senators did sign Johnny Oduya to provide depth and offensive spark beyond the best defenseman in the game, Erik Karlsson. And…Dion Phaneuf. The rugged defender gave Malkin fits in the playoffs.
Turning the Corner
So, the Penguins may have a spark from their offensive explosion, Tuesday. However, it remains to be seen if they’ve turned the corner. A solid showing against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference would go a long, long way to putting concerned minds at ease, but one game does not erase issues. The Penguins have more work to do. Tonight will be a fun test to see what the team has under the hood. Game on!