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PHN Extra: Pens Report Card 10/12–Big Results on the Right Track

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PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 11: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his hat trick goal with the bench during the second period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vegas Golden Knights on October 11, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins converted their opportunities to goals, Thursday night. They didn’t have as many opportunities as Vegas, not even close, but the Penguins snipers drew Aces on the river cards en route to a 4-2 win. Vegas’ rough season continued as they fell to 1-4 despite dramatically outshooting the Penguins and dominating play for most of the second period.

Read the postgame story here.

Phil Kessel had his first hat trick as a Penguin. Perhaps he will use all of those hat donations to do more media interviews?

The Penguins had enough big-time plays from big-time players to put distance between themselves and Vegas. So, when Vegas scored their second goal with over five minutes remaining, the Penguins had enough breathing room.

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said it best when he tepidly praised the team’s effort. He used phrases like “trying to do the right things,” and “making concerted effort to be on the right side of the puck.” It was certainly a more encouraging effort than the first two games and one befitting of a talented team in the first few games of the season looking to put things together.

Penguins Report Card

Mike Sullivan: A

The Penguins bench boss got through to his team this week. The coaches were not happy, and Sullivan let his team know. He got their attention. He also coached a solid game. His line shuffle in the second period–putting Rust with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel worked. That switch also broke up the Penguins third line which was really struggling.

Sullivan also played Juuso Riikola over 18 minutes but never exposed the rookie defender to more than he could handle. Riikola made a lot of offensive zone starts and most often saw the Vegas fourth line. That was a clever move to see what Riikola could do without tossing him helplessly into the deep into of the pool.

Phil Kessel-Evgeni Malkin: B

The pair scored three goals. They were quick snipes which took the wind out of Vegas’ sails. Vegas was gaining momentum in the first period when Malkin won a faceoff, and Kessel quickly buried the wrister. And Vegas was dominating the Penguins when Kessel anticipated Malkin’s possession of loose pucks and bolted for breakaways. For his part, Malkin didn’t miss the nearly 100-foot headman passes, either.

However, that line with Carl Hagelin was otherwise dominated by Vegas by about a 60-40 margin. Malkin-Kessel is a 50 percent Corsi¬†pair, but if they give up that many chances against, the Penguins goaltending won’t always be as kind to bail them (and the entire team) out.

Casey DeSmith: A+++

DeSmith earned a couple of extra pluses for a few 10-bell saves. The guy just stops the puck. His blocker save on Pierre Edouard Bellemare in the final minute of the second period was a nail in the Vegas coffin. If Vegas scored, they would have had momentum going into the third period down by only two but outplaying the Penguins. Instead, DeSmith took hope away with a great blocker stop as he slid to his right, then quickly slid back to his left to make a very underrated and athletic pad save on the rebound.

Mike Sullivan called DeSmith, “the best player on the ice.”

Yeah, that sums it up.

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Pens Fourth Line: D

Even in the first two games, their Corsi was below 40 percent. Thursday night, they were swallowed up. Cullen-Sheahan-Sprong were out-Corsi’d three-to-one. The trio allowed Vegas a wealthy 75 percent of the shot attempts when they were on the ice. That’s just not good enough.

It’s easy to blame Sprong but the line just isn’t working. In limited time with Bryan Rust in Sprong’s place, that line saw a tremendous turnaround but the Penguins feel a responsibility to give Sprong a grace period to develop. Unfortunately, the trio isn’t generating anything in the offensive zone to bolster their stats.

Sullivan probably won’t stick with this status quo too much longer. Whether they shuffle Sprong to the press box for a game, Cullen to center or just drop their ice time to a negligible amount (see 2017), the fourth line has done nothing to inspire confidence yet.

They didn’t give up a goal, so they don’t get an F.

Juuso Riikola: A

The kid was a high-energy, highwire act, Thursday. He made some choices to pinch or stand firm at the offensive blue line in the face of the Vegas breakout and was generally rewarded for his bravery.

However, he was mostly playing against the Vegas fourth line. He did see some time against the Vegas top line, and when that occurred, he simplified his game–he stuck to Jonathan Marchessault like glue.

Riikola had some trouble getting out of his own zone. On at least three occasions, he failed to clear the zone or connect on outlet passes. By his admission, he “was a little slow” on those passes. A couple of those fails became turnovers, and a couple of his pinches were risky, but it was fun to watch. In the second period, Vegas began targeting the blueliner with body checks and hard puck pressure. Riikola didn’t buckle, but it did have some effect.

On Riikola’s first shift, he stepped forward at the offensive blue line to plaster Tomas Hyka. The hit separated Hyka from the puck and took away the Vegas breakout and subsequent rush. He may want to simplify, but don’t discount Riikola doubling down. That’s the Letang side of him.

Overall, he does remind this scribe of a young Kris Letang. There was a lot to like.

Johnson-Schultz: C

Like the rest of the team, Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz had terrible Corsi numbers. They were playing defense most of the night. However, it would be wrong to blame the pair instead of the team for being pinned into the zone. They bent but didn’t break–in other words, Johnson-Schultz defended their own zone well enough to keep Vegas off the scoreboard. Hockey is not a game in which the “offense” plays on one half of the ice and the “defense” plays on the other. They were on the ice for the second Vegas goal which was generally terrible coverage by everyone, but the Penguins also had a 4-1 lead and seemed in command despite facing tilted puck possession.

In short, don’t buy into the Johnson and Schultz negativity which was percolating on social media. Johnson dished eight hits and had no giveaways. He’s much better on the left side. Schultz succumbed to the Vegas pressure and had a few giveaways. It wasn’t their best game but they were OK. Forwards have to win puck battles and play with the puck before defensemen raise their “Corsi” (unless one defenseman is Erik Karlsson). Johnson-Schultz were also on the ice for two goals-for, as well. That counts for a lot, too.

This was Johnson’s third game. It will get better.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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