It was the first game after the NHL holiday break for both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators. For extended minutes in the first and second periods, the game had a wild, first-day of school vibe as the teams played a little bit of firewagon hockey. While the teams throttled their excitement, the Penguins down line, lunchbox players put the puck in the net and their goalie almost lit the lamp. The Penguins soundly beat Nashville 5-2 at the Bridgestone Arena on Friday night.
There’s no shortage of memories for the Penguins at Bridgestone Arena, but only three Penguins who hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2017 were in the lineup (Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, and Bryan Rust). Four more Penguins who were on the ice that night are currently injured (Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin) and goalie Matt Murray is sliding into a backup role. Kris Letang was on IR for the 2017 playoffs.
The remarkable stat of the night was 14 Penguins scored points. Juuso Riikola was the only Penguins player with two points. Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, Sam Lafferty and Joseph Blandisi were the only Penguins skaters without points, though all four were very good. Lafferty and Blandisi had several Grade A chances.
“Had a couple of lulls in the game where they pushed hard and we had to defend hard. You’ve got to expect that of a good team,” said Bryan Rust. “Once they get down, they push back and I think we did a good job of responding.”
Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne just doesn’t play well against the Penguins. He spotted the Penguins an early lead when he allowed Dominik Simon to score a softy from the left circle. He fought the puck harder than I fought the temptation of devouring this three-pound bag of Swedish Fish. I lost, too.
Tactically, the Penguins had an answer for Nashville’s active defensemen. The Penguins also did a few things in their own zone extraordinarily well, even if those things don’t show up in stats or advanced stats. (This is the tease to subscribe for less than a grande Mochaccino at a Seattle based coffee house).
The Pittsburgh Penguins showed great puck support on Friday night. Think back to how many soft touch-passes they used to break out of the zone. Those don’t happen without tight puck support. The Penguins breakouts get an A+ because they controlled the puck out of their own zone, created speed in the neutral zone and were able to generate activity in the offensive zone with puck possession.
The Penguins weren’t forced to blindly chip the puck into the zone and hope they could retrieve it. Even when they played chip-and-chase, they had speed and space to direct the puck to the corners for greater success.
Xs and Os
One defensive wrinkle also aided the Penguins breakouts. The Penguins pulled their F1 into the low zone, which created a triangle around the net and matched Nashville’s push to play in the low zone.
That was the biggest battle of the game and the Penguins tactical ploy had several benefits. The deep forward was able to move the puck and join the play with speed. Second, the F1 playing low was also able to help the Penguins match Nashville’s numbers in the dirty areas. The Penguins left the other two forwards high in the zone to cover the active Nashville defense.
Nashville defenseman Roman Josi had some chances, but the Penguins denied Nashville the chance to work their low-to-high game. The high slot was left open but Nashville did not take advantage (and the Penguins would have adjusted if they did).
The crashing forward also created a barrier around Jarry. The Penguins were under siege in the second period, but were nearly equal in high-danger chances (3-4), and scored the only two goals of the period. Basically, the Penguins absorbed the Nashville attack by packing the low scoring zone and Nashville had to shoot from outside of it.
Another positive note for the Penguins, with the game still undecided, they also dominated the puck and scoring chances in the third period (62% Corsi, 73% scoring chance rate).
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card:
Do we grade on the curve for a five-day layoff or grade them straight? As always, stick tap to NaturalStatTrick.com for the in-game heatmap and Corsi data.
Tristan Jarry: B+
Jarry wasn’t clean on Friday night. A lot of pucks hit him and caromed away. Jarry didn’t softly gobble up rebounds and his positioning was a bit too deep in the net. Jarry is athletic enough to recover from those mistakes and he reset well. The extra forward down low also kept Nashville off the puck in front of Jarry.
(The early goals) were huge. It always helps to ease the nerves a little bit, especially after a break when you might not be feeling the greatest,” Jarry said.
Teddy Blueger-Zach Aston-Reese: A
The Penguins used their Teddy Blueger line against the Nashville top line. Aston-Reese and Blueger were even on the advanced stats, which is a win for the Penguins. The Penguins duo also created offense as Aston-Reese and Blueger each had a couple of good chances and ZAR setup Bleuger’s goal.
They used their speed and played down low which created possession and set up the more Penguins offensive from other lines, too.
Juuso Riikola: A
Riikola had two points (1g, 1a) and was a plus-four. But anyone can read a stat sheet (go ahead, ask my opinion on data-driven “storytelling”). Beyond the stat sheet, Riikola didn’t have his name mentioned much in the first 30 minutes, which in this case is a good thing. Riikola was noisy in the 4-1 Penguins loss to Vancouver last Saturday. He was steady, quiet, and picked his spots well on Friday in Nashville.
He showed hands and great feet on his goal when he got behind the Nashville defenders in a flash. a few more of those games and I’ll rescind my opinion that he is an NHL defenseman but doesn’t fit well with the Pittsburgh Penguins right-side defensemen.
Alex Galchenyuk: B+
Galchenyuk scored a goal in the crease on Friday night. First, he deflected a shot, then he poked the rebound home. He pestered Nashville defensemen on the forecheck and backchecked well.
Galchenyuk played a solid game with some energy. If he can build on that, he can begin to resurrect his Pittsburgh Penguins tenure.
I’d still like to see him play with the puck and play on the rush more often. Those are his strengths. The freshly shaved Galchenyuk wasn’t so talkative about the coincidental nature of shaving and scoring.
“I guess so. I wanted to freshen up a little bit. I guess it paid off today,” Galchenyuk said.
Sam Lafferty-Joseph Blandisi-Dominik Simon-: A
I really liked their game. They pressured Nashville on the forecheck. They created several great chances with offensive zone puck movement and movement away from the puck to get open. Their finish lacked but they shined.