Until the four-game road trip through Canada, the Pittsburgh Penguins were struggling to play a complete game, struggling with effort and otherwise earned the ire of their coach Mike Sullivan. Four games later including the trip-ending win over the Vancouver Canucks, the Penguins have eight more points, a big goose egg removed from Sidney Crosby’s goal total, and any Penguins analysis must include the newfound SCHutdown line with Matt Cullen at center.
Saturday, the Penguins beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-0.
For over a week, the Penguins flexed their muscle against Canada and were undefeated. They played their best games of the season in the first game of the trip, a 3-0 shutout against Toronto, and in the third game, a 9-1 pasting of the Calgary Flames.
Saturday, the Penguins proved a welcome distraction to a tragedy in our backyard, including a Phil Kessel goal and the resulting joyous social media memes. For our part, Pittsburgh Hockey Now will focus on hockey as we personally share the hurt and anger with you.
Penguins Analysis and Report Card:
The game was open, and the teams traded chances, but there was little sustained offensive pressure by either team. Instead, they traded chances on the rush or singular shots. As the game wore on, the Penguins gained more of the chances, including a very good third period.
How could we possibly give them anything less than an A+? Phil Kessel scored a rebound goal after the line executed a flawless cycle. The line was also the primary offense driver until later in the second period when Crosby and Dominik Simon found a spark.
However, the line still lacks “structure” in their own zone and the neutral zone. They allowed the Canucks speed and space, especially in the first period. The line is a work in progress but they’re worlds ahead of where they were just a couple of weeks ago.
Perhaps they’ll never be a line capable of tight play. Malkin broke the game open in the third period with a pair of quick goals, including good work with Daniel Sprong. Carl Hagelin provided consistent puck pressure, too. As long as the line can at least pay some attention to defense, they’ll be an asset for the Penguins.
Dominik Simon: A
The zippy winger is inconsistent, but he had hop, Saturday. Simon was eventually paired with Sidney Crosby on many shifts. Simon was only credited with one assist–a sharp pass to Crosby cutting behind the Vancouver defense–but he also set up Crosby’s second goal with great work on the offensive end wall.
Simon nearly set up Daniel Sprong for a highlight reel goal in the second period after dancing around the Vancouver defense, but Simon just missed the cutting Sprong.
Simon can be the target if negativity from fans, but do not sleep on Simon. He’s only a sophomore NHL’er and has plenty of skills.
Casey DeSmith: A+
Get the shutout, get the A+. DeSmith was very good in the first period when the Canucks had the advantage. DeSmith held the fort with several big saves, and by tripping Elias Pettersson, who was about to beat DeSmith.
DeSmith stopped all 29 shots. He allowed the Penguins to settle in and he has solidified his NHL status.
Penguins Defense: A
Several defenders including Jack Johnson had big games. Johnson played tighter to the blue line and was a physical force. And, just look at this heat map–no heat in front of DeSmith
Jamie Oleksiak: B+
The “Big Rig” thundered poor Tyler Motte in the second period. Oleksiak, 6-foot-7 and nearly 260 pounds nearly put Motte into the English Bay…or all the way to Seattle. Motte was justifiably shaken up after the clean hit.
Oleksiak played a big role for much of the first period while Kris Letang dealt with a lower body injury. He drove offense and anchored the defensive zone. A big night for the big defenseman. Oleksiak had two assists and was a +4.
Mike Sullivan: A+
Like the last day of camp, Sullivan let it all hang out. Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon not only played in a full game, but they were also featured in the third period even when the game was competitive.
The coaching staff essentially let the kids run wild, and the pick up from Sprong was noticeable. Sprong was rough, again, through the first two periods including a botched cycle play with Derek Grant in which Sprong failed to establish either end of the play then collided with Grant.
In the third period, Sprong got the tap and responded with a great shift with Evgeni Malkin which resulted in Malkin’s first goal.
Sullivan had a sloppy team with inconsistent effort before the road trip, but the gravel-voiced Bostonian rallied the troops for a good road trip which has altered the course of their season. They finally look like contenders; the first time since 2017.
Credit Mike Sullivan.