COLUMBUS — The game started well enough, and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ largely minor league roster dotted with NHL hopefuls held serve with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ NHL-player-laden lineup that included nine NHL regulars or soon-to-be mainstays.
Columbus dressed Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Zach Werenski, and starting goalie Elvis Merzlikins, among others. They also won 5-1 with two power-play goals in three attempts, but in this case, the game wasn’t about the score.
As acting coach Todd Rierden stressed, it’s not the result but the process. The “developmental” roster got a good look at what the Pittsburgh Penguins want them to become.
Penguins defenseman P.O Joseph echoed the enthusiasm to play against some of the NHL’s best, even if the score was a bit of a beating.
“I think as the game went on, we built on a lot of good things, and we have a lot to be happy about,” said Joseph. “We finished on a pretty good note in the third period … I think there’s a lot of positives to come from it.”
The Penguins were competitive until midway through the second period. Then the undermanned Penguins self-destructed.
Forwards collided in the defensive zone. Goalie Dustin Tokarski left a few juicy pucks laying near the crease, which became goals, and the Penguins’ defense, including P.O Joseph, chased the chaos.
The Penguins were outshot 13-7 in the second period, though it felt like 30-7.
But it’s preseason. How much weight does a 10-minute implosion carry?
“It’s about an opportunity. It’s about a process that (our players) are going through to one day be at this level. And, you know, we had a little bit more of a developmental roster today against a good Columbus team,” Reirden said. “We were able to see our team not stop trying from the drop of the puck until the very end, no matter what the score. I was really proud of our effort as the game continued on.”
Until second period swing, the Penguins were outchancing Columbus, outshooting them and putting up a spirited effort. Many Penguins players, including Joseph and center Ryan Poehling, had positive advanced stats.
Positive advanced stats in a 5-1 game are like the “bless your heart” of hockey analysis, but in the first period, the Penguins were giving it to Columbus.
“I mean, we knew it would be a big challenge. And when we saw their roster this morning, and they had a bunch of NHL guys, we were excited about the test,” Poehling said. “I thought we came out, competed hard…”
Reirden broke up the overrun fourth line in the third period with Ty Glover, Jordan Frasca, and Lukas Svejkovsky. Danton Heinen joined the line in the third period. The undrafted free agent Frasca, who scored 42 goals as an overage junior with Kingston last season, had a couple of glorious chances in the third.
He finally cashed in midway through the final period. He was knocked down in the slot but arose just as a loose puck bounced towards him. Frasca (1) whipped it past goalie Jet Greaves.
It was a good moment for Frasca.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Good and Bad Performances (That Matter):
In no particular order.
Radim Zohorna-Alex Nylander: Their line with Drake Caggiula had a wildly impressive shot-attempt differential, 14-5 midway through the third period, but only a 5-4 shot differential. They were stuck on the perimeter against the Columbus NHL defense.
Jack St. Ivany: I become more impressed with him each week. He’s smooth with the puck. Poised. He’s willing to stickhandle to safety but doesn’t slow the game down in the process. He makes a quick play as soon as it opens. I really liked what I saw; it’s shades of rookie John Marino.
P.O Joseph: Against what will be a pretty good top line for the Columbus Blue Jackets (Gaudreau-Kent Johnson-Patrik Laine), Joseph and defensive partner Taylor Fedun didn’t get to the other side of the puck. 9-10.
“It’s a good challenge. That’s what hockey’s all about. And you always want to compete against the best. It’s just a long, long process, and I can finally say that I played against these guys,” Joseph said. “My goal is to play against these guys for a long time. And to me, it was just the first step in the long process.”
Joseph didn’t necessarily improve his standing in the race for the Penguins’ sixth or seventh defensive spots, but I don’t think he hurt his chances, either. He faced stiff competition. He didn’t clear the net on the Blue Jackets’ power-play goal in the second period, but that was as much on goalie Dustin Tokarski for leaving a pizza on the doorstep. Joseph was less conservative, but we will need to see him surrounded by more talent before we can gauge his standing accurately.
Alex Nylander: A lot of you ask about him. He had a few moments with the puck on Sunday night. He jumped the d-to-d pass for a 180-foot breakaway but didn’t finish. He ran the power play from the point reasonably well, too. However, 5v5, he’s a perimeter player, and despite a lot of attempts, his line got a small percentage on net (five of 14).
He has to play inside the dots more often.
Raivis Ansons: I like him more and more. He went to the net. He battled with the NHL players in the corners. Ansons showed good transition out of his zone and made simple plays. He’s not yet at the NHL level, but he just might be on his way.
Lukas Svejkovsky: He had a little jump, too. However, he needs a good season in the AHL. He just seemed to be a smidge out of place several times.
Nathan Legare: A quiet night. I don’t think he was too happy after the game, either. His line with Ansons and Sam Houde had some good moments, but Legare wasn’t necessarily on the puck with them. Houde and Ansons sprung the break and led the charge, but Legare didn’t get many touches. He went to the net, jostled, hit Columbus, and was pesky, but it was a quiet night.