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Penguins Grades: Kids Fight & Score; Pens’ Young Lineup ‘Brings Juice’



Pittsburgh Penguins, Penguins game, jonathan gruden fight

There was a poetic symmetry to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena. Perhaps not since Jake Guentzel’s rookie year had the Penguins willingly put forth so many players who were 25 and under with so little NHL experience.

If it wasn’t the most inexperienced lineup since then, it was easily the most inexperienced lineup of the last couple of seasons. And the kids, including recently recalled Sam Poulin, Jack St. Ivany, and Jonathan Gruden, made an impact.

“They brought us a lot of juice. You know, their enthusiasm is contagious. In the third in particular, I thought they had a couple of real strong momentum shifts,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “They were physical. (Gruden) ends up in a fight. They just brought us a ton of energy. I thought Sam played well for his first game this year.”

The stat lines for the newbies weren’t eye-popping. Poulin played just over nine minutes and wasn’t credited with a shot attempt, but his line was around the net. St. Ivan played 15 minutes with two hits and a shot.

“Jack (St. Ivany) was awesome coming back for pucks, talking to me a lot,” said goalie Alex Nedeljovic.”That goes a long way in making things easier. And Sammy and Gruden obviously, with the fight, they set the tone … They were doing a little things.”

Jesse Puljujarvi, who is not short on NHL experience but is only 25, had his best game with the Penguins. Poulin told PHN that he and Puljujarvi played together during Puljujarvi’s AHL tryout earlier this season, and the pair already had some chemistry.

In a season of unpredictable events, Puljujarvi scored the first goal of the game through a net-front screen set by defenseman Ryan Graves. That’s not usually how it’s drawn up, but it counts. The goal was a reward for the Lars Eller line, including rookie Valtteri Puustinen, who launched the Penguins’ rush out of the defensive zone.

Puustinen changed for Puljujarvi, who became the late trailer in the offensive zone and used the space afforded to pinpoint a hard wrist shot past Carolina netminder Pyotr Kochetkov.

Later in the game, Sullivan admittedly rewarded Puljujarvi by elevating him to Eller’s line.

The Penguins were remarkably structured for most of the game. Carolina always plays with their tight, man-to-man structure, forcing opponents to fight through traffic and battles for the length of the entire ice.

The Penguins did a nice job of staying in their spots but also making some pretty plays to beat coverage and create rushes to the offensive zone.

Carolina’s first goal was bad luck for the Penguins. Jesper Kotkaniemi and Marcus Pettersson tangled on the wall, and Pettersson was injured. He couldn’t rejoin the play. The resulting moments of shorthanded play created space at the top of the zone for Carolina defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s wrist shot to get through a few bodies near the net.

Drew O’Connor, who is also 25, added the first empty netter. Sidney Crosby, who was once 25, added the second.

What the Penguins Did Well

Structure. predictability.

The Penguins knew where their linemates were going to be, and that enabled them to escape some of the heaviest Carolina pressure. There were a few tic-tac-toe breakouts.

The Penguins also defended the interior of the offensive zone. Yes, Carolina had 38, 39, or 40 shots (the total has changed a few times) compared to 22 Penguins shots, but Carolina didn’t dominate the crease as many others have done.

“They’re a very straightforward and in-your-face type of team. They do it really well,” said Nedeljkovic. “They get bodies to the front of the net, and they get pucks through. But I thought we did a great job of boxing out, tying up sticks, clearing out any rebounds, and really limiting the chances that they had in that good ice.”

Nedeljkovic made 39 saves.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B+

I suppose we’re grading on the curve, just a little. The Penguins played well. And for everyone who has been clamoring for young players in the lineup, the Penguins iced five players 25 and under who played in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season. That number jumps to seven players if you include young players P.O Joseph (24) and Drew O’Connor (25), who did not become NHL regulars until last season.

There yielded few, if any, odd-man rushes against. The Penguins transitioned well, forcing Carolina to keep up, and defended infinitely better than they did for the final 30 minutes against the Colorado Avalanche Sunday.

However, the Penguins didn’t get near the Carolina net with the puck. For their part, they did defend

Fourth Line “Kids”: A

Gruden-Poulin-Puljujarvi. They played about six minutes through the first two periods, didn’t allow a scoring chance, and had what should have been scored a couple for themselves.

More importantly, they forechecked hard, got the puck low, worked on the wall, and went to the net.

PHN talked with Poulin one-on-one before the rest of the media horde arrived. He was genuinely pretty happy not just to be back in the NHL but to play well.

Power Play: F-

Zero point zero.

The power play was embarrassing. They were credited with one shot on the first two opportunities, but it was not a dangerous or serious shot. They established almost no zone time or pressure. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby appeared to be frustrated and had a tense moment on the bench after the second attempt.

Who or what his object of frustration was is unknown.

Performances to Like:

P.O Joseph. He was slick and activated well playing beside Kris Letang.

Lars Eller. Absolutely love his bedrock game with sound defense and a little offensive flare. He’s been playing very well.

Bryan Rust. He did what he’s supposed to do: chip in some offense, play a gritty game in both zones and be around the puck. Mission accomplished.

Jesse Puljujarvi. His hard-nosed shift in the third period was a step above what he’s been doing. In the last two games, there have been signs of him emerging as a better player than he was last season. Whether he continues it or builds on it is up to him, but he showed well in a tight-checking game.

“Since we’ve put him back in the lineup, I think Jesse’s played his best hockey,” said Sullivan. “When he’s moving, and he gets on the forecheck, he uses his size and his physicality. I think he can be a really effective player. I’m sure it’s good for his confidence that he scores a couple of goals (he also scored a goal Sunday in the 5-4 OT loss to the Colorado Avalanche). But I think he’s he’s playing the best hockey since we’ve got him in the last couple of games.”

Jack St. Ivany. Did you notice him? No? That’s good. He was part of the team effort to keep Nedeljkovic’s sightline clear. He’s stepped forward at the offensive blue line without being vulnerable and has been solid.