WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Holy (expletive deleted, times two), this place is cold, but unusual circumstances seemed to lift everyone’s spirits before the Pittsburgh Penguins practice Friday at the Bell MTS Centre on the outskirts of Winnipeg.
The Jets’ practice rink, with no less than four rinks, was hosting a youth tournament. Word quickly spread that the Penguins were on their way and the kids (and adults) lined the path from the Penguins’ dressing room to the ice. The kids cheered and asked for high-fives. And one youngster yelled to Jeff Carter, “you’re tall!”
The guys got a real kick out of everything.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” Bryan Rust said.
Despite fairly critical Penguins postgame analysis, which stands, the Penguins did a few things right on Thursday night. Beyond getting a few soft goals, they put themselves in a position to win.
Coach Mike Sullivan admitted there’s still a cleanup in progress, but two points were vital. They could have been six points out of a playoff spot if they lost on Thursday.
“We still have some lapses in the game where we hurt ourselves, so to speak,” said Sullivan Thursday night. “We’ve got to continue to work and get better at those circumstances. For a lot of the night, we really liked our game.”
After practice on Friday, Sullivan expounded on what he liked from Thursday night. The special teams were chief among them.
PHN also asked what improvements the Penguins’ head coach would like to see.
“Manage in the game. Some of the momentary lapses where we give up a couple of goals in a short period of time,” Sullivan said. “We don’t execute. And, on our breakouts, we’ve got to force our opponents to work harder for those types of opportunities.”
What the Pittsburgh Penguins did right:
1. Power Play
The Penguins moved quickly, but more importantly, they took the space Minnesota’s PK yielded. They should do that more often. Teams certainly do it to them.
By collapsing the PK, Kris Letang was able to blast a shot from the slot, not the point. It was a 5v3 for a few moments, but the Penguins’ work with the two-man advantage has historically been much worse than their 5v4 work. So, take the win.
Sidney Crosby also scored a power-play goal close to the net.
It seems simple. Move the puck, shoot, retrieve, repeat.
“We’re just trying to get them to simplify the game a little bit,” Sullivan said. “You know, take some of the thinking out of it, not look for a better play … Let’s shoot the puck, go to the net, and create opportunity off the rebound. I think that’s when our power plays out its best.”
The Winnipeg Jets have the third-ranked PK (84.2%), so the simple philosophy will get a workout on Saturday.
2. Deployed the Fourth Line
Teddy Blueger’s line with Josh Archibald was dangerous. Jeff Carter and Danton Heinen created offensive chances, but the fourth line had something special, and Sullivan didn’t limit them to seven or eight minutes.
They got over 10 minutes and performed well. Ryan Poehling couldn’t stop smiling after the game. He scored a goal in front of a few dozen friends and family. His play was standout.
So, too, was Josh Archibald’s play. He defended and transitioned to offense quickly. I thought his goal, whether he or someone else tapped it in late in the second period, should have counted (instead, he was called for goalie interference).
Sidney Crosby had four points on Thursday, but it was hard to say the line was dominant. They’re still scuffling, despite the points. Sullivan loosened the reins on the fourth line, and they performed exceptionally well.
“They brought us a ton of energy. They had a number of good looks,” Sullivan said. “They scored a goal, so they did everything and then some as far as helping us win. When they play that type of game, it certainly makes us a whole lot more difficult to play against.”
3. Played Better in the Third Period than the Second
The Penguins have coughed up three wins this season by wilting in the third or making game-changing mistakes going for the win. They didn’t do that on Thursday. The Penguins outshot Minnesota 12-9, and they played their best period of the game (that’s not saying a lot, but it says something).
Pittsburgh Penguins Locker Room Notes:
–As we entered the room on Thursday night, Kasperi Kapanen was sitting beside Kris Letang, involved in a discussion. Kapanen quickly left as we entered, but it speaks to Letang’s evolution as a mentor and leader.
After the Penguins acquired Mike Matheson from Florida, he took Matheson under his wing. The pair workout together in the summer, but sources told PHN that Letang grew into a mentor role with Matheson, which helped both.
Kapanen’s season quickly went south after the first few games. The Penguins winger has been a healthy scratch, and a veteran’s friendship or guidance surely can’t hurt.
–Ryan Poehling couldn’t wipe the smile off his face after the Penguins win in Minnesota. Poehling is from nearby Lakeland, MN. He helped the Penguins’ PK turn in a 100% performance and scored a goal.
“It was a fun game to be a part of. Obviously, (I had) a lot of family in the stands, which is special, so they’re here to witness that, and we get the win.”
Was that his best game as a Penguin?
“Umm, yeah, it might be, I think … I think we … Yeah. We played well, so yeah,” Poehling said.