DETROIT — The Pittsburgh Penguins are approaching the midpoint of their preseason schedule, and none of their core players — a group headlined by, but not limited to, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang — have spent an evening in uniform yet.
That figures to change Thursday, when Buffalo will visit PPG Paints Arena at 7 p.m. — Mike Sullivan confirmed that he plans to start working veterans into the lineup then — but it’s understandable that the foundation pieces of the Penguins’ roster have been idle so far.
Their jobs, after all, are secure. Barring injuries, those four are locks to play when the Penguins open the regular season Oct. 10 against Chicago.
That isn’t true of almost anyone who dressed for the Penguins’ 4-3 loss to Detroit at Little Caesars Arena Tuesday night. Oh, a handful of those guys might be on hand for the Blackhawks game, but there are no guarantees.
One of the leading candidates to stick around is goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who stopped 29 of 33 shots against the Red Wings.
His performance was better than his stats suggest; much better than his luck on this night, too.
It was bad enough that Detroit scored its second goal during a 5-on-3 power play and its third during another man-advantage, when David Perron prevented Nedeljkovic from getting a look at a Moritz Seider shot from the center point.
But what had to really sting was that Michael Rasmussen’s game-winner at 6:13 of the third period deflected off Valtteri Puustinen’s stick on the way to the net, radically changing direction before eluding Nedeljkovic.
“They got a couple of good bounces tonight,” Nedeljkovic said.
Rasmussen’s goal was a sour note in an otherwise solid performance by Puustinen — he set up the Penguins’ first goal, by Radim Zohorna, and scored their second — as he maintained his place in the mix for a spot on the bottom-six.
A few other contenders, like Sam Poulin (who scored the Penguins’ third goal), Vinnie Hinostroza and Zohorna, acquitted themselves well, too, which might be why Sullivan suggested that no one has begun to separate himself from the group in the competition for those jobs.
“Certain guys have played well,” Sullivan said. “Others have had sporadic moments of positive play. I still think it’s real early. We’re three games in (to the preseason). We’re not even a week into training camp. I don’t want to be quick to assess.
“I think it’s important that we just reserve judgment and just watch the camp evolve and just continue to give these guys opportunities to play, and we’ll see where it goes. We’re excited about the group that’s assembled here. There’s a lot of candidates who could potentially make the Opening Night roster.”
Although Nedeljkovic said he is not assuming that he will start the season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, that Magnus Hellberg is a viable threat to beat him out for the job as Tristan Jarry’s backup, he has earned favorable reviews for his work to date.
“I think he’s been really solid,” Sullivan said. “He’s making the saves he’s supposed to make. You can see that one of the strengths of his game is his ability to play the puck. I thought he had some really good handles, some good exchanges with our defensemen.”
Nedeljkovic also has made a few saves that he probably wasn’t supposed to, like when he gloved a shot by Detroit center Andrew Copp after the puck had caromed off the back boards and gone to Copp at the right side of the net during the opening period. (Save is pictured above.)
Nedeljkovic declined to single out that stop — “They’re all good saves, as long as they stay out of the net,” he said. “I would have liked to have made at least one more.” — but it would have turned up on plenty of highlights shows if it had happened during the regular season.
Of course, that wasn’t true of much that transpired during the game. With camps open for less than a week, the quality of play often is, to be charitable, uneven.
“It’s not always the cleanest games,” Sullivan said. “There are moments of sloppy play. But that’s to be expected at this time of year.”
Especially when the most accomplished players on the depth chart are spending game nights in street clothes.