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Penguins Breakdown: O’Connor Explodes, Crosby Fights, Final Preseason Grades



Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

BUFFALO — Sidney Crosby rushed to the defense of Kris Letang. Drew O’Connor needed just 20 seconds for a breakaway goal and later beat everyone for another clean drive to the net and score. The Penguins scored three goals in 2:14 and four goals in less than nine minutes, then two more in the third period for a 7-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Arena.

Of course, everyone had pretty O’Connor goals and a Crosby fight on the list of expected viewing, right?

Also add this in the letter to Ripley’s: the Penguins top power play unit scored two goals. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang potted the man-advantage tallies.

For a team that looked like it enjoyed the trip to Halifax a little too much to a team that wheeled its own equipment into the building just before 5 p.m. Friday, the Penguins weren’t perfect. Still, they flexed the skill and some scrappiness by beating the rising Buffalo Sabres, who missed the Eastern Conference playoffs by just one point last season.

The Sabres will be a team the Penguins need to keep their eye on as both hope to rejoin the playoff dance. Or perhaps it will be the Sabres who must watch the Penguins. There was no question about who had more skill on Friday.

“It was a high-event game. Probably more so than either coaching staff would have liked,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Penguins Analysis & Grades

Penguins Team: B

They were loose. It wasn’t necessarily a tight effort in the defensive zone, and there were plenty of mistakes, but at least there was effort.

Ryan Graves showed just how big of an upgrade he’ll be by getting back on a couple of rushes and moving well with the play in the offensive zone. His mobility will be a big asset.

Erik Karlsson will pinch. Come hell, high water or low odds, Karlsson is going for it. He created some uncomfortable moments for the team and goalie Tristan Jarry, but he’s also creating more than he yields. Mr. Karlsson’s wild ride.

Drew O’Connor: A+

“He’s playing to his strengths,” Sullivan said.

Yeah. He had a breakaway goal and another that was essentially a breakaway after he zipped behind a defenseman on the wall and was unabated to the net. O’Connor had a breakout preseason.

Whether he was playing with Sidney Crosby, which he did Friday or Lars Eller, O’Connor was an offensive threat. That was his third breakaway of the preseason.

“So it was nice to finally finish,” said O’Connor with a smile. “That was the first (breakaway of the preseason) that went in, so it felt good for that to go in. But I think it’s something I’ll continue to work on, if I do get those chances, to score.”

Jansen Harkins: A-

He got lost in the shuffle in the second half of the game, but the game devolved into helter-skelter, firewagon, and loose hockey. Early in the game, Harkins had a couple of chances near the net and one on the power play.

“I thought he had another really strong game. You know, he’s made an impression on us in the short time he’s been here,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to get to learn his game a little bit more intimately than we knew it. As I said to you guys before, the people in our hockey operations department, Kyle (Dubas) included, think very highly of Jansen. And I see why.”

Penguins Power Play: B+

Two power-play goals?! Erik Karlsson sort of chuckled about the first goal. He had a clear lane, and Evgeni Malkin stealthily went to the net. It was an easy pass and deflection.

“It was a little scrambled at times, but that’s the way it is. But I think, once we get possession and when guys have time, I think we made the right play today. And guys, we’re in the right spot,” Karlsson said.

PHN asked Sullivan before the game what would be a step forward. He joked that a couple of goals would be nice. Well, he got them.

Lars Eller: B+

He certainly won’t get headlines after Friday, and he won’t attract many headlines this season, but the quiet third-line center had some strong shutdown moments and some subtle, smart plays. The Penguins gave up four goals, but Eller was a plus-2.

His game is about being in the right spot at the right times. He appears ready to solidify the Penguins’ third-line pivot.

Noel Acciair: C+

Acciari was a bit off-kilter — he’s being responsible, but there were moments when the fourth line was out of position. Buffalo gained real zone time against the line with Jeff Carter and Matt Nieto, and the Penguins were bumping into each other, scrambling to quell the threat.

Advanced stats or video replay might prove me wrong, but it seemed Accaiari was on the wrong side of the puck. His trademark physicality was also missing. He hasn’t affected the game this preseason like we know he can.