The hours and days following an unimportant Pittsburgh Penguins loss have the same buzzing fan activity as a morgue or a Tuesday Pirates game in April. After an impressive run of five wins in their last six games, outshooting and outchancing various opponents, the Penguins looked lifeless. They never found their spark in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Arena.
A better team than Buffalo probably would have run the Penguins out of the arena.
“I mean, you don’t want to use it as any sort of excuse, but I think playing back to backs is never easy. I mean, you have to give them credit, too,” Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson said.
Fair enough. Buffalo didn’t offer enough to get the Penguins dander up, and in the second of a back-to-back…it happens.
But in the process of the SO loss to Buffalo and the last six games, we’ve learned a good bit about what the Pittsburgh Penguins could look like after the final regular-season game, April 29, and the prospect might start to excite Penguins fans.
Even the most ardently unhappy, pessimistic commenters on this website were glowing after the Penguins dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-1 on Tuesday night.
The Penguins high-intensity puck pressure game, and linear attack are back, but this time with most of their players healthy.
Before we dive into it, I sympathize with all fans who exclusively watch games on television and watched that TNT broadcast on Wednesday. I caught the intermissions for the first time since October, and…that intermission yuk-yuk routine was nothing less than a disservice to hockey. The studio show includes great players and hockey people. The network must let them talk hockey.
My blood boils when hockey is treated as a sideshow, and network execs try to draw casual fans by avoiding actual hockey talk. You’ve got Rick Tocchet and Anson Carter at the desk. Both are very good at talking hockey to the betterment of the audience. Let them do their thing.
You don’t get that nonsense on Hockey Night in Canada.
3 Pittsburgh Penguins One-Timers:
1. Rickard Rakell on Crosby’s Right Wing
I floated the idea when he was acquired and did so again Wednesday morning. It’s possible. He’s a right-handed winger and comfortable playing on the left or right. However, Evgeni Malkin is left-handed. That means on the rush, Malkin would feed Rakell one-timer chances with backhand passes.
That’s not terrible, but not ideal.
“I would say I’m really comfortable playing both sides. I actually played left wing for the most part of my years in Anaheim, so I’m fine either way,” Rakell said Tuesday night.
Rickard Rakell, 28, played about seven minutes beside Crosby on Wednesday. It was a significant bump over the line with Evan Rodrigues, though they didn’t score.
“I thought (Rakell) was pretty good. In a lot of ways, I anticipated this one being a tougher one for him than (Tuesday). When you think about it, he’s traveling across the continent. He’s on the red-eye and didn’t get much sleep last night. He’s playing on adrenaline (Tuesday)…,” Sullivan conceded.
“I thought he competed hard. You know, we had some good shifts with Sid’s line. We tried him up there a handful of times. I moved him around to see where he might fit…”
Letting Malkin keep Bryan Rust adds much to the Malkin line. Crosby is naturally a puck devil. He fights for every puck and is one of the best gritty wall workers in the business. Rust adds that dimension to Malkin’s line and adds a healthy dose of offense.
Rakell’s skill with Crosby, while Rust adds dimensions to the Malkin line, might be the best balance.
Imagine this top-nine:
Not bad, eh? Here’s the final verdict: head coach Mike Sullivan has time to figure out who has chemistry and let the players decide where they fit.
2. Malkin, Rakell, Matheson, and Beating Carolina
We’ll dive much deeper into this topic over the coming weeks.
It took nearly two months, but Evgeni Malkin is finally on his game, Wednesday night not included. Malkin is playing a strong, straightforward game. He’s attacking pucks on the forecheck, battling for space, and creating space with his skill and speed, as only he can.
Rakell, as noted above, creates an incredibly deep Penguins lineup.
In losing two of three games to the Carolina Hurricanes over the past month, the Penguins showed they were just a little behind Carolina. Sebastian Aho showed he could neutralize Sidney Crosby, thus making the top-line battles a wash.
That puts Malkin against Vincent Trocheck and Jeff Carter against Jordan Staal.
Carolina had the edge.
Now, I think the Penguins have the edge.
I also think the Penguins have the better goalie, Tristan Jarry.
And Mike Matheson playing his best hockey of the season shrinks the gap between the production of the very active Carolina defensemen and the Penguins defensemen.
Perhaps the Washington Capitals will catch the New York Rangers for third place, as Washington is a far better matchup for the Penguins (soft goaltending, less productive bottom-six). If the Pittsburgh Penguins draw the New York Rangers in Round One, Igor Shesterkin looms large, just as Carey Price did in the 2020 bubble.
Should the Penguins get to Round Two and get Carolina, they will be an equal. I didn’t think that was the case before the deadline.
That opinion is based on extrapolating the next 16 games. I reserve the right to upgrade or downgrade the Penguins’ chances.
3. Farewell ZAR & Simon
Hextall and Sullivan said thank you, too.
Both served the Pittsburgh Penguins well for the last handful of years. Simon was the constant goat for fans. And putting Simon into the lineup meant that Mike Sullivan was somehow oblivious.
Just as when (trigger warning) Jack Johnson found work elsewhere, I’m a little happy for the player not to put up with the stubborn social media criticism. Simon was on a two-way, $750,000 contract. He was making the minimum.
Be very confident, Sullivan put Simon in the lineup because Simon created offensive chances, puck possession and did everything but finish. Hey, not every player will score 20. Simon made the Penguins a better team when he was on the ice. It was that simple. No coach’s agenda.
Here’s a previously untold story of Zach Aston-Reese.
Last week, he talked about Brian Boyle and how tough Boyle is on the ice. However, Zach put a couple of words together that made sense in a hockey context but were also a pretty damned funny double entendre.
He winced immediately. In the small Penguins media room at the UPMC Lemieux Complex, a few of us tried to avoid laughing. I’m not sure if we made him lose it or if he made us lose it, but we were all laughing within a few seconds.
It was yet another self-effacing, enjoyable moment with Aston-Reese and, as it turned out, our last. I maintain he has 10-15 goal ability but gets tunnel vision and occassionally doubts that he has that much to give. To him, sometimes, he’s still the undrafted kid from Northeastern.
Perhaps Anaheim will push him to the next level. I hope so.
Fare thee well, boys. Enjoy SoCal.