PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins again earned a point but again left feeling dejected for not defeating an inferior team, Tuesday. The Penguins lost to the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in overtime at PPG Paints Arena but outshot the Canucks 28-26 and had more scoring chances, 24-20.
It was the first time this season the Penguins felt like they played well. However, a couple of sloppy plays in the first period and bad luck as goaltender Casey DeSmith stumbled in the crease put the Penguins in a hole from which they never fully crawled out.
With a lead, Vancouver battened down the hatches in the third period. They had just six shots on goal. They packed the zone, they chipped pucks out to center, and they were content to let the Penguins try to figure out how to score.
“We’ve got to look to shoot the puck more and create offense off of the rebound,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I think we’ve got to simplify everything we do. We’re trying to encourage the players to shoot the puck more. And I think if we do that, it’s going to force us to get inside the dots.”
Those words were taken verbatim from his 2016 speeches.
The Penguins searched for weaknesses from the perimeter until Evgeni Malkin stripped the puck in the defensive zone and sprung Phil Kessel on a two-on-one. Kessel froze the goalie and half of the arena by holding onto the puck until Carl Hagelin was alone in the crease, on a two-on-one with three minutes remaining.
PENGUINS REPORT CARD:
Sidney Crosby: A-
Crosby is struggling to find his stride. He’s playing well but not scoring.
“Sid and I sat in my office yesterday, after practice and we just looked at a lot of the offensive zone stuff. He’s such a student of the game…One of the things that I think came out of the conversation was just hanging onto pucks,” said head coach Mike Sullivan.
Think back–Crosby hasn’t been playing with the puck enough. Part of that comes from having snipers Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist on his line. Those two need to be fed. Now, Derick Brassard is looking to make plays, and the top line is going through some growing pains as they adjust to their roles and talents meshing.
It’s a work in progress, but that line was the Penguins best over the entirety of the game.
Casey DeSmith: B-
DeSmith was a bit sloppy, Tuesday. In addition to overcommitting and stumbling on the Canucks first goal, he was beaten several times only to hear the clank of the puck hitting the post to save him. DeSmith wasn’t quiet in goal; he was scrambling. Though DeSmith made several great saves, too.
Take it as a compliment or insult, DeSmith looked like a capable backup goaltender, Tuesday. However, shooters are now focusing on his blocker.
Jack Johnson: B-
Johnson’s game is hard to assess as the Penguins turnover on defense makes communication and cohesiveness more difficult. Johnson is best when he’s a stay-at-home defender who makes the opponents pay a price for playing the puck. Johnson had three hits and four blocked shots, Tuesday. He also helped nullify several chances.
Beginning in the second period, coaches paired Johnson with Juuso Riikola. Riikola and Johnson are both defensemen new to the Penguins system, so they’re both learning the more delicate points of the scheme. Riikola made a few mistakes, and Johnson was there to contain potential damage.
Fans will blame Johnson for the second goal but they shouldn’t. Johnson defended the cage until Tim Schaller beat Brian Dumoulin and was going to have a clear attempt on DeSmith.
Juuso Riikola: C+
Riikola let Bo Horvat skate past him early in the second period, and Riikola’s game changed. He was softer on the blue line and more conscious of getting beat, rather than tight gaps at the blue line. Actually, Riikola probably played a little better after Horvat beat him.
PHN will have another shift-by-shift breakdown of Riikola for PHN Extra, in the morning. There’s a lot to dissect.
Kris Letang: A+
When Letang is on his game, he is a special player. He played another great game as highlighted by a shift midway through the third period. Letang raced to the near wall, won a puck battle, and carried to center ice to begin an offensive sequence. That’s the definition of turning defense into offense.
Letang played 25:27, had four shots, Vacouver blocked three, and two missed. His positioning has been spot-on, and his speed has clearly returned. He may be the only Penguin skater playing at maximum capacity.
An interesting note–late in the game, Letang and Riikola were paired together as the Penguins tried to win the game in regulation.
Third Line (Rust-Sheahan-Hornqvist): C+
The line cycled the puck low in the offensive zone. They had more shot attempts but were even in scoring chances (5-5). The low cycling game suits center Riley Sheahan and Bryan Rust, but perhaps not Patric Hornqvist as much. Hornqvist playing 40 feet from the net isn’t going to be his game. The Penguins line need to transition that cycle from the corner to the net more decisively and not accept offensive zone possession from the perimeter.
Opponents with a lead will allow perimeter play. Bryan Rust’s speed is the spark on the line. Sheahan has to get to the net, too. He’s too comfortable on the outside.