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Penguins Postgame: Player Grades, Will Letang & Karlsson Figure it Out?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson

The first period between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres was not exactly an action-packed thrill ride not suitable for those with heart ailments, back issues, or those who may be pregnant. Alex Nylander and the new-look Penguins power play had a chance to seize the spotlight. Eventually, the Penguins won 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena Thursday, but it took some effort to get there.

You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t notice much action until the third period. There really wasn’t much until later in the second period.

In hockey circles, the polite term is “low-event game.” The Penguins power play was officially 0-for-3, but two of those chances were fewer than 40 seconds.

The lack of intensity worked against the Penguins’ ability to draw penalties, though they took a few.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” coach Mike Sullivan conceded with optimism because it was the first game in which the NHL regulars were in the lineup.

While Thursday will not be remembered for any paradigm-shifting performances, there were several things to notice, both on the positive and negative sides of the ledger.

Better Penguins Performers:

Chad Ruhwedel: 

Last season, I thought Ruhwedel looked worn out or old. As the team stumbled, and Jeff Petry spent more time on the trainer’s table than the ice, Ruhwedel’s number was called often.

Ruhwedel has looked refreshed and stellar in the preseason. He broke up a two-on-one and was otherwise his consistent, stable best beside Ryan Shea. Sullivan has a high comfort factor with Ruhwedel, and for the most part, it’s earned. Thursday, he raised the bar for Mark Friedman to surpass him for the sixth spot.

Noel Acciari:

In a low-pressure game, he was a little bit agitating. There was the backfoot “whoops” trip to upend a checking defenseman behind the net. It looked like a sneaky trip from up high. He also had a couple of tips at the net.

He drove the fourth line with Austin Wagner and Jeff Carter.

Acciari also nearly scored when he deflected a hard Ryan Graves shot at the front of the net. Acciari is a valuable addition at a good price. He could be great fun when the real games start.

Erik Karlsson:

As one long-time Penguins employee said, “He always has the next play loaded. He sees the ice, a magician.”

Karlsson’s movements are fluid. He’s a step ahead of the play and all over the ice. I knew he was good, but you may have to spring for a few tickets to watch him in person. You won’t see everything he does on TV. No, I don’t get paid by the Penguins to help them sell tickets, but if you’re a hockey geek watching the play away from the puck, Karlsson is one of the best.

“He’s also the first guy back,” Marcus Pettersson said.

Alex Nylander:

It was a big chance for the winger, but he was largely silent. While Drew O’Connor and Lars Eller flashed some regular-season effort and were rewarded with offensive production, Nylander, Malkin, and Reilly Smith were a bit of a mess.

Smith seemed particularly out of sorts with the breakouts and Xs and Os. It was his first game with Malkin, but others found chemistry. It was incumbent upon Nylander to be more aggressive and earn his spot. I can’t say that he did that.

Drew O’Connor:

He’s really flexing in the preseason. If he didn’t have a great stretch last March, I might be more dismissive or view it differently. However, O’Connor is charging. He had a pair of breakaways in the second period. Scored a net-front goal, and the empty netter.

There’s everything to like about his game. He’s playing in the dirty areas, playing with speed, and playing well with Lars Eller.

Kris Letang:

This is an adjustment for Letang. He’s no longer the man. That’s Karlsson. The Penguins had one full power play and a couple of mini chances.

He looks a bit lost trying to figure out Karlsson while learning a new spot. Will that affect the rest of his game?

Letang and Ryan Graves played a whopping 25 minutes each, but Letang did little improvising and took very few chances. He played a conservative, reserved game.

It’s something to watch–how will being the second defenseman affect Letang? Will he recede to the background, sometimes press to contribute, or will he find his rhythm with Graves as a shutdown pairing with the ability to score?

Power Play: 

The Penguins power play had a lot of movement. At one moment, Karlsson and Rickard Rakell crossed paths in the slot while Evgeni Malkin was at the point.

There was a lot of movement but no shots after significant zone time. The only power play shot was Bryan Rust on the rush after PP2 took its turn.

How well will the two righties used to running a power play work?

“We’re about to find out. I’ve played most positions throughout my career on the power play, maybe not so much on that front, and I think I’m off duty there,” Karlsson said Wednesday. “It’s going to take a little bit of time before we finally find our identity and what we’re trying to accomplish out there.”

Ever been on an awkward first date? That’s what the Penguins PP1 looked like. I know many of you will suggest moving Letang to PP2, and I’m pondering that, too. However, give it a bit more time before making the final proclamations. The unit had one day of practice and one full opportunity in a game. That’s not enough work to render a verdict.