The Pittsburgh Penguins’ struggles at the commencement of the regular season created a tense atmosphere. Unspoken by many but understood by all, the specter of losing four games in a row, additional lineup changes, fan anger, and slippage in the standings hovered like ominous storm clouds.
Yet a team with aspirations of greatness received a few standout performances from great players rising to the occasion and younger players hoping to make a mark to part those clouds. A team-wide determination to adhere to the scheme and strategy differed from the slop-tastic efforts which preceded it. Yes, the Penguins took too many penalties, putting their PK and goalie in the eye of the storm, but Evgeni Malkin, Reilly Smith, and the Penguins’ third line shined. Bryan Rust and others provided the tenacious D, and the Penguins were the first to hang a loss on the Colorado Avalanche this season, winning 4-0 at PPG Paints Arena.
That’s tenacious D, not Tenacious D, though the performance was Classico Penguins.
Get the Penguins game recap here.
Read the reverse Colorado Avalanche analysis from our friends at ColoradoHockeyNow.com
When the Penguins were lax in the defensive zone, or after they took one of several needless penalties, goalie Tristan Jarry was his best self, too. His windmill save on Jonathan Drouin in the second period brought chants of “Jarry, Jarry,” which blessedly interrupted the insipid Fire Canada chants that are long past cute or funny.
You’re free to ask, “Why can’t they do this all the time?”
The saving grace of the Penguins’ now-defunct three-game losing streak was similar slides by division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders having equally bad stretches. Yet against one of, if not the best team in the league, the Penguins decided to play their best game.
And it was the details within the game that may be most surprising. The Penguins didn’t outskate Colorado, who were clearly faster. They didn’t outhit them or simply get a couple of luck bounces.
The Penguins wanted the puck more. Their backcheck will surely put a smile on coach Mike Sullivan’s face as his head hits the pillow Thursday night. So, too, will a few performances from leading players and the Penguins’ third line.
“(The game) shows ourselves that this is how good we’re capable of being when we’re on top of our game,” Lars Eller said. “And this is the kind of effort and structure that we need to play with every game. And then we can we can do some great things and still have fun playing hockey and score (some) goals. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I think a lot of good defensive plays led to two offensive chances. And those things, you know, go hand in hand. And that showed well today.”
In the first period, the Penguins adopted a tight defensive posture without the puck and transitioned fast when the opportunity arose. Domination wouldn’t be the proper word; instead, Malkin controlled the play. He slowed the play. He dictated the speed and direction of others, including Colorado.
“I told the guys after the game, this one has some feel-good, and it gives us something to build on,” said Sullivan. “I thought we played–of all the games we played this year–this one we played with more structure away from the puck. I thought we did a good job just defending the good ice, (the) inside ice, and then taking advantage of what the game gave us offensively.”
The transition chances in the first period set up by puck pressure were vintage Penguins.
Not all was perfect, but it never is. More importantly, now is how the Penguins build on this. If they lay an egg Saturday vs. Ottawa, all is for naught, but if they build on this structured win, circle this game as the launch pad.
The Penguins’ structure is worth revisiting. To counter the Avalanche’s speed, the Penguins pulled back when they didn’t have forecheck position. You may have noticed a clear 1-2-2. They did so again in the third period when they finally got to even strength after more bad penalties.
The Penguins are not the fastest kids on the street anymore. Even with the increased team speed, they’re now competitive in that aspect, but certainly not significantly faster than most opponents. Keeping that counter-attack structure might be the
They executed the defensive posture well and counter-attacked. For everyone who says Sullivan can’t or won’t adapt, this was Exhibit A. One would expect to see more of it, too.
In the second period, the Penguins overcame some mistakes with puck-hungry pressure. Bryan Rust and Radim Zohorna created turnovers. Malkin even cleaned up his own zone, playing end to end.
Penguins Report Card:
Evgeni Malkin: B
It’s a treat to watch him this season. He’s not necessarily bull-rushing past players or skating past them, but he’s borrowed a page from Mario Lemieux by slowing down the play. Malkin is letting the play unfold or pressuring defensemen to make decisions and snapping the puck to Reilly Smith, who has a knack for settling into a passing lane ready to shoot.
When he wasn’t in the penalty box, he looked like a puppeteer controlling the play at will.
Malkin’s first-period setup for Radim Zohorna was a master class at forcing a defenseman to commit and then hitting the open player (Zohorna hit the post on a great look at full speed). Malkin nearly came to a complete stop on his setup for Smith on a two-on-one. Colorado goalie Alexandar Georgiev had no choice but to focus on Malkin, as did the defenseman. Malkin neatly slipped a pass to Smith, who had a wide-open net.
But Malkin also took six minutes in penalties in the second period. No Bueno. He went from an A to a B for those penalties. We almost gave him a B-. If the Avalanche score one or two goals, the third period is entirely different. Just can’t do that, even if his four-minute high-sticking penalty was just bad luck.
Crosby might be battling skate issues. He’s been chatting with the equipment guys about the issue a lot lately. Crosby had three passes intercepted, all backward attempts, in the first period, including a blind backhand pass on the first shift. Crosby might not make three passes like that in a month, but had three in the first 20 minutes. Even the best scuffle sometimes.
However, Crosby whipped a wrister past Colorado goalie Alexandar Georgiev in the third period for some feel-goods, too. The goal was set up by Guentzel doggedly stealing the puck on a backcheck at the blue line and neatly setting up Crosby with space.
That was the theme–the Penguins backcheck.
Radim Zohorna, Drew O’Connor, Lars Eller: A
Three games, three solid efforts by the Penguins’ third line. Zohorna also knows how to move the puck in the offensive zone, and move to get open, and he’s been good defensively. It’s not entirely to his credit that the line with Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor is suddenly viable, but perhaps he was the missing piece that makes it viable.
“I thought they had a really strong game. I thought it might have been (O’Connor’s) best NHL hockey game,” said Mike Sullivan. “And just the way he tracked pucks–his speed was really evident … I thought he stripped Makar of the puck one time, just tracking from behind. That’s not an easy task against a player of that caliber.”
Bryan Rust: A
The gritty, speedy winger who plays with some sandpaper at both ends of the rink has returned. Rust was all over the puck, exemplified by a first-period defensive stand at the blue line in which he forced a drop pass, then stole the puck to launch Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith’s two-on-one goal.
In a second-period sequence, he quickly disrupted a potential Avalanche breakout with a backcheck and steal. His shorthanded dive to clear the puck at the end of the second period, combined with a couple of sparkling Tristan Jarry saves, earned a standing ovation.
Tristan Jarry: A+
He positioned himself well. His glove was working, and he made 31 saves. The fans let him know he was doing well, too. A thunderous ovation at the end of the second period after he made a pair of five-alarm saves brought the well-less-than-capacity crowd to its feet.
Chad Ruhwedel: B-
The defenseman had a ghastly turnover in the offensive zone, which led to a Colorado power play. He stabilized his game in the second and third periods and was part of the Penguins’ perfect PK, but he is increasingly bringing unwanted attention with mistakes or misses. However, three hits, and two blocked shots are a nice stat line.