BUFFALO — Even though the scoreboard matters little in preseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth preseason game 3-1 at Key Bank Arena. The game was more about direct position battles on the Penguins’ blue line and at the bottom of the lineup.
A couple of forwards stood out for good things. The defensemen struggled.
And both goalies in the game, the Penguins’ Tristan Jarry and Buffalo’s Ukko-Pekkanen Luukonen were stellar.
“I think both goalies were a little better than the players today,” said Buffalo head coach Don Granato.
The first period was a blackout for offense and fans in Pittsburgh. Technical difficulties kept the game off TV, and good saves at both ends of the rink kept the teams off the scoreboard.
A few Penguins had a good first period.
Jarry faced several unabated chances and turned them away. He played the entire game and looked to be in mid-season form.
The Penguins low game generated a few chances throughout the game. Luukkonen stuffed Filip Hallander alone in front. Nathan Legare stole a couple of pucks in the offensive zone for quick chances, but he, too, was denied.
Legare showed hop throughout the game. He also stole the puck from Luukkonen behind the net, but the Penguins couldn’t covert the opportunity as the goalie made a sprawling save moments later.
With a chance to make a statement or establish their positions, only a few made positive impacts. PHN continues to grade Drake Caggiula well. The tenacious winger earned a few chances near the net.
The big disappointments were the Penguins’ young defensemen.
On Thursday, head coach Mike Sullivan said he wanted to see Drew O’Connor improve at killing penalties and refine a few areas of his game. O’Connor was probably the Penguins’ best skater on Saturday, including on the PK.
“I thought this was Drew’s best game. I thought he was noticeable. His skating was noticeable. He did a pretty good job on the penalty kill,” Sullivan said. “He was solid on the forecheck. I thought his line had a couple of really good momentum shifts. And so, for me, that’s the game he needs to play if he’s going to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He needs to play a straight-ahead conscientious game, use his size, speed, and reach, and then get in on pucks to help us create momentum. I think he can do that for us. I thought he did that today.”
One player, who isn’t an NHL contender but might be next year, is Nathan Legare. He had a strong game. He led the Penguins with six shots on goal, had a couple of scoring chances, and a couple of tips near the net (which means he was at the net).
Legare was also hard to play against. He was only given credit for one hit, but that’s low by a few.
Pittsburgh Penguins Grades for Players Fighting for Positions:
Penguins Special Teams: F
Technically, the penalty kill nullified
both three chances. However, Buffalo’s first goal was just a few seconds after a penalty to Zohorna expired. The Penguins PK has continued where it left off in May — getting backed to the circles and pushed between the dots. The Penguins are collapsing but not taking away passes or shooting lanes.
Victor Olofsson had a square mile to blast a one-timer past Jarry late in the second period. There were no Penguins in the shooting lanes.
The power play didn’t make a reciprocal challenge in the first two periods.
Ty Smith: D
Smith got lost in the defensive zone a few times. Tage Thompson also burned him at the Penguins’ blue line. Thompson had a clear path behind Smith to the net and sniped the second Buffalo goal.
Smith tried to maintain forward momentum and defend Thompson with a weak stick. That didn’t work so well as Thompson won the loose puck basically uncontested. Sullivan tiptoed around Smith’s defensive lapses.
“I think his offensive game is really evident. He’s great on the offensive blue line. He walks the blue line on the power play, or at even strength. He distributes the puck … His deception on the offensive blue line is impressive,” said Sullivan. “On the defensive side, I think we’ve got an opportunity to help him grow. We know he can improve that area, and I think he’s determined to get there.”
Smith has been very good in Cranberry, but he didn’t do much with the puck. Despite getting power play time, he had zero shots in the first 40 minutes. Nor did Smith push the issue on the rush or get low in the zone during 5v5 play.
His first good offensive touch was a one-timer 6:10 into the third period, but he partially fanned on the one-timer from the circle.
Smith was one of only a few Penguins on the ice for more shot attempts against, and that “reach defense” against Thompson wound up in the Penguins’ net.
P.O Joseph: C
Joseph needed to be a standout on Saturday. His chances to crack the NHL lineup are dwindling fast. Unfortunately for Joseph, he struggled early, and the puck was finding him.
“I think he struggled in the first period, but I thought he really grabbed hold of himself in this game,” Sullivan said.
Joseph played steady for the remainder of the game, but he didn’t do much with the puck. Joseph had one shot in the first two periods and didn’t stand out.
Ryan Poehling: B
He was much better in the second period than in the first. In the second period, he was aggressive and engaged. He set up Drake Caggiula near the net several times by winning wall battles and moving toward the dots.
Poehling didn’t have a shot on goal in the first 45 minutes, but he played a strong game.
Drake Caggiula: A
We continue to grade him well. He goes to the net. He battles for pucks and seems to find the loose puck in a crowd. His speed is evident in the offensive zone as he zips after loose pucks.
He’s not offensively gifted at this level, but he would be worthy of NHL ice.
Caggiula and O’Connor slapped at the loose puck that became the first Penguins goal. O’Connor got credit, but both would have scored.
Radim Zohorna: B
More good than bad from Zohorna, but two unnecessary second-period penalties didn’t help his case. He was also underwater in faceoffs (6-7). He was better than OK, but he didn’t make a statement. There wasn’t a standout sequence or big moments.
Drew O’Connor: A
O’Connor was strong on the PK, which is one way he’ll get to the NHL. He stole a few pucks and created rushes while shorthanded. He was on the puck for most of the game and finished with four shots.
O’Connor was near the net at the end, too.
He skated well, was a threat in the offensive zone, and probably did more to raise his stock than anyone else.
Mark Friedman: A-
A quiet but efficient game. He held the blue line to keep offensive possession and got the puck deep or to the net when able. Friedman didn’t make any mistakes.
He’s looking better and better as the third pairing option.