WASHINGTON D.C. — Reilly Smith could only laugh. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired the winger, who was famously a Misfits as one of the original Vegas Golden Knights via an offseason trade. He’s had too many great chances, including a few Friday, before he finally earned his first goal as a Penguin on a great feed from Evgeni Malkin, who dominated the game with four points, including his first goal of the season.
Smith’s third period tally was the icing on the Penguins’ cake as they exploded in the second period, then squeezed the life out of the Washington Capitals in the third for a 4-0 win at Capital One Arena.
“I thought it was a much better — I don’t want to say better effort — I just thought we played smarter tonight,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought we had a little bit more structure in the defensive zone. Just our play without the puck was a little more conscientious, certainly (more) than it was in Game 1. And I think that gives our guys an opportunity to act on the talent that we have.”
The Washington jerseys have long featured stars, but the stars on the Penguins roster shined brighter. Sidney Crosby had a pair of goals. Malkin scored a goal and four points as his line delivered the even-strength goals as the Penguins overcame a disorganized start more worthy of the domed building down the street.
Get Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap here.
The Penguins’ early season struggles continued, if not worsened, in the first period. The Penguins ‘ breakouts were terrible from the top of the lineup, including Sidney Crosby, to the bottom. Far too many passes were a few feet ahead, behind, or simply to no one.
It took a period for the Penguins to settle down and for Washington to cool down. And that’s when very specific things changed.
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The Capitals had the spark and energy befitting a team beginning their season. They made a point to tenderize Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who dutifully went back to retrieve pucks. Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson moved the glass with hard hits on the end wall.
It was a pointed effort to soften the other half of the Erik Karlsson pairing.
In the first period, Sidney Crosby and Malkin had Grade-A chances at the front of the net. Malkin specifically had an unabated path from the left circle to the net, pulled the puck between his legs, and chipped it against his direction, but Washington goalie Charlie Lindgren sniffed out the next-level move and made a toe save.
It was just the start of Malkin’s big night, though Washington outchanced the Penguins 10-5 in the first period, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
A season of hope that began with darkness on Tuesday bloomed for the Penguins in the second period. Erik Karlsson danced with the puck. Crosby buried a couple of power play chances, Malkin stalked the puck through the offensive zone, and Tristan Jarry closed the net even against a breakaway by Alex Ovechkin.
Karlsson’s honesty was amusing in the postgame locker room.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he said, referring to the power play. “But we found a way to get a couple in the net.”
It was far more than that, but we’ll save it for the report card below.
Among the many things that were different Friday, the Penguins did something they failed to do against the Chicago Blackhawks. They scored that “next goal” for a 3-0 lead. And, as Sullivan noted, they played smarter.
“We did a good job of weather (the Capitals energy in the first),” Crosby said. “Geno got that first goal, it gave us a boost and to follow it up with some power plays and see those go in, we gained momentum from that.”
In the first period, the Penguins defensive zone coverage was, to be kind, soft. Washington could enter the zone with possession and move the puck to an open man with speed.
In the second and third periods, they played a disciplined, structured game. So, yes, they can do it.
It started the same way in the second period, but the Penguins had a bit more jump. The player and moment that changed the game belonged to Jansen Harkins, whose early second-period forecheck created a turnover that launched the second-period outburst. The Penguins spent the next three minutes in the offensive zone, including a strong shift by the fourth line with Matt Nieto, Noel Acciari, and Jeff Carter. The Penguins seized the momentum and knocked a pair of goals, one EV, and one power-play.
Harkins was modest, but it had to feel pretty good to be the tip of the spear that launched the team.
“Maybe at least that shift. And then I think it’s kind of up to everybody else to get on it after that,” Harkins said. “The coach was talking in the intermission about just being a bit more aggressive up the ice, and I think just kind of forcing their hand a little bit.”
This was the turning point. Apologies for the video quality–our friends at Hulu and ESPN have blockers to prevent better recordings (and many of you from watching the game):
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card:
Power Play: A+
They scored two goals, and the lack of prettiness is why they got an A+. The top unit didn’t pirouette around the perimeter or hold the puck, waiting for Moses to magically part the Red Sea.
The power play wrinkle that we noted Friday morning was maybe a little more obvious Friday. There was movement, but it was direct movement with the intention of forcing the PK to make decisions, thus creating shot lanes, open players, and a bit of chaos.
“I think at the beginning of training camp and through a lot of training camp, there was movement, but it wasn’t a lot of movement with a purpose,” Sullivan said. “And I think as (the players) work through the challenges and get more familiar with one another, they’re starting to move with purpose. And I think you saw that tonight.”
Evgeni Malkin: A+
The old lion roared. He backchecked, he dominated the game when he wanted, and those four points were the result of surgical precision. How ya doin’ Alex…
“I thought Geno was on his game tonight. When he’s on his game, it seems like the puck follows him around, and he played with a lot of energy. He’s still such a dominant player out there,” Sullivan said. “And I thought tonight he was at his best. He sees the ice so well — that play he made on Reilly’s goal at the end was just an unbelievable pass and started with just tracking the puck from behind. He was playing on both ends of the rink.”
When you think back on these star players, years from now, remember the nights like tonight when they remind us why we’ll see them at the intersection of Younge and Front forever (That’s the location of the Hockey Hall of Fame).
Reilly Smith: A
The winger has piled up offensive chances, but until late in the third period, those chances were missed opportunities. Washington goalie Charlie Lindgren made a couple of great saves on Smith, including a ridiculous blocker save in the third period. Smith finally lit the lamp, and he truly smiled like a butcher’s dog.
He’ll need to keep finishing these chances, but the early returns are quite positive for Smith on Malkin’s left.
Fourth Line: C
Perhaps I differ from a colleague or two. The fourth line built on a good shift by the third line early in the second period. Otherwise, the fourth line was on the wrong side of the puck. However, Sullivan also offered some cover for the trio. I don’t suspect you’ll go along with it, but it’s certainly one way to look at it.
“They’re just a conscientious line. They had a couple of shifts early in the game where they got hemmed in our end, but they did a great job just protecting the inside of the ice and keeping the play to the perimeter,” Sullivan said. “And that is the type of thing that I think settles teams down. When you have a comfort level that you can play in your own end, and nothing bad is going to happen. That’s a good feeling when you’re on the bench.”
Overall, they did their job by limiting scoring chances and neutralizing puck possession in the third period, but they cannot be called an asset.
They were OK. Better than the fourth line, but they didn’t assert themselves, either. However, the third line provided what I believe to be the spark. Harkins separated the puck from the defenseman, and the Penguins spent the next three minutes in the offensive zone.
Tristan Jarry: A+
A shutout win in Washington. He made some key saves in the first period but also kept the second chances to a minimum and made the net small behind him by playing aggressively. Absorbing rebounds and taking the top of the crease. A pretty good night.