The Pittsburgh Penguins opened their 2009-10 season with their first back-to-back set of games, and their double-dose of New York opponents were chomping at the bit to get at the Kings of the Hill.
A home-opener of cosmic proportions ensued with the raising of the Stanley Cup banner for the last time in the Igloo. It was electrifying. It was nostalgic. And there were many “snapshots” one could call memorable:
- the roar of the crowd when Max Talbot came on the ice, the Game 7 hero;
- the look of sheer pride on Mario’s face;
- the ovations for Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury;
- the table holding up under the weight of the many coveted trophies earned through blood, sweat, perhaps some tears, and a whole lot of heart, bruises, and teamwork, or
- maybe it was watching that banner make its slow ascent to the rafters.
It was all good. Then the games began…
It was time for the teams to start lining up, a la the 2009-10 schedule, to see who could be the first to hand a loss to the Penguins. In their 3-2 win over the New York Rangers, despite some early jitters, the team settled down and got to work, and it promised to be a physical game with the Pens recording 41 hits, 10 more than the Rangers, but the most memorable “hits” came from a beauty of a fight between heavy-weights Donald Brashear and Eric Godard. The standard had been set.
In the second game, closing the first of 16 scheduled back-to-back games in the Pens’ schedule, the New York Islanders came out like they meant business, and it was a slug-fest to the bitter shoot-out end with the Pens prevailing. Everything was rocking and rolling.
Maybe it was the distraction of the Phoenix Coyotes’ administrative problems. Maybe it was the Coyotes’ well-executed neutral zone trap that took away the boards off of which the Pens love to race. Maybe, it was just a hiccup. The bright spot in the Pens’ first unceremonious 3-0 home loss was Jordan Staal’s face-off prowess, winning an impressive 12 of 13 draws (92%). That was about all that Coach Dan Bylsma had to smile about, except he wasn’t smiling. On the bench, as Evgeni Malkin slammed his stick and Jordan Staal looked to the heavens for answers from the hockey gods, Bylsma stood behind the duo surveying the ice with a look of ultimate disapproval.
Whatever was said in the space of time between the end of that game and the start of the next, the team regrouped to take on the hated Philadelphia Flyers. The game did not disappoint…ok…well…maybe it disappointed the Flyers’ fans as the Pens emerged victorious, but the Pens were back on track,…except for this nasty new habit of committing a ton of penalties.
The game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who looked like a stronger team in the pre-season, displayed some of the Penguins’ abilities including a red-hot power play that notched 3 goals in their 5-2 win.
The Ottawa Senators were up next, and they exhibited signs of being a serious contender as Milan Michalek and Bill Guerin exchanged goals at the end of the 1st period within less than a minute of each other. That is until, Tyler Kennedy blazed 2 more goals past netminder Pascal Leclaire, and linemate Jordan Staal stuck the dagger in for his 3rd goal in 3 games, giving Pittsburgh a 4-1 win.
The latest game against the Carolina Hurricanes promised to be a dogfight as these teams met for the first time since the playoffs when the Pens swept the ‘Canes. The stats looked about as even as they could be in just about every category through 2 periods of play. But Eric Staal did not seem himself on the ice. The ‘Canes tried the Coyotes’ trick of putting on the neutral zone trap and stacking bodies across their defensive blueline, but the Pens, better prepared than before, stuck to the plan and chipped away to force a shoot-out win. Ray Whitney was a force to be reckoned with, and Cam Ward put on just as much of goalie clinic at his end as Marc-Andre Fleury did at the other, denying Bill Guerin’s sure goal from what looked like inches.
What Needs to Change…
The biggest, most glaring anomaly emanating from the Penguins team that fans have come to know and love is the profusion of penalties. In the first 4 games alone, the Penguins committed 36 penalties for 92 minutes, which translates into over 4 periods of riding the sinner’s pine. Forty minutes consisted of 7 fighting majors (5 minutes) from Eric Godard, Craig Adams, Mike Rupp, and Jay McKee as well as 2 misconduct penalties of 10 minutes each for Jay McKee and Chris Kunitz. Those guys aside, Evgeni Malkin surprisingly led the way with the most penalties (6), followed by Sidney Crosby and Brooks Orpik, each with 4 apiece. This hardly showed the disciplined play for which the team had become known.
The Good News…
There’s a lot more on the positive side even at this early stage in the season. Continuing with the penalty situation, in the last 3 games, the Pens have whittled down their wreckless infractions by more than half with 17 penalties for a total of 43 minutes. Only 3 fighting majors (5 minutes each) committed by Godard, Adams, and Rupp. Malkin managed only one trip to the sin bin as did Crosby, and Orpik avoided it altogether.
Face-offs–Clearly, the art of the draw has been discussed and worked on to the extent it can be in a non-real-game situation. Some set plays on the face-off have been incorporated, and with the vast improvement of the centers on the dot, puck wins have led to puck-possession and either some very good chances in the offensive zone or the ability to clear or transition out of the defensive zone. Of particular note among those taking the most draws:
- Sidney Crosby has won 88 out of 142 attempts (62.0%). He leads the league in the number of face-offs taken. His highest percentage so far came in the game against the Flyers where he won 21 of 24 (88%).
- Jordan Staal has won 53 out of 106 attempts (50.0%). His highest percentage came in the loss to Phoenix where he won 12 of 13 (92%).
- Craig Adams has won 37 of 70 for 52.8%.
Power Play–Really, the team is off to a decent start, picking up from where they left off in the playoffs. The Pens’ home power play conversion is 14.3% (2 home games), and their away conversion rate is 19.0% (5 games). Noticeably, they are moving the puck more swiftly, taking good shots, multiple shots, and getting one and sometimes two men in front of the net. Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal have both shared duties as the guy to set up on the netminder’s doorstep. Having Sergei Gonchar in the line-up from the get-go doesn’t hurt either, and he and Kris Letang continue to mesh from the blue line.
Penalty Kill–The Penguins have gotten off to a decent start with a respectable 84.6% kill percentage at home and 82.6% on someone else’s ice. As they reduce their time in the box, these stats should improve and break 90%. Bylsma continues to encourage the aggressive short-handed style with the likes of Staal and Cooke, Adams, Depuis, and even Crosby getting in on the fun.
Board Domination–In just seven games, the Penguins have notched 190 hits on opponents with a game high total so far of 41 hits at the expense of the New York Rangers. In the wrecking crew department, the team is averaging 27 hits a game from an average of 12 players per game. Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Cooke lead the way on a regular basis. And while hits are exciting to watch, the Pens are making a point of taking the body to separate man from puck and ultimately gain back possession. They are improving on that technique.
Protecting the Netminder–In blocked shots, the Pens are no less impressive. Through 7 games, they have blocked 127 shots, led by Jay McKee with 21 blocks and Brooks Orpik with 14. The team is averaging 18 blocked shots per game from an average of 9 players an outing. Speaking of netminding, Fleury looks like he only took a week off from the play-off form he was in this past spring. Already, he has made some spectacular point-blank robberies from opposing snipers. Most notably, he has improved on his puck movement. In the ‘Canes game, he looked extremely comfortable coming out of the safety of the crease to redirect play up ice, shortening the distance for his teammates, which saves legs. Particularly in this game, his play was reminiscent of Tom Barrasso during the Mario years, and that’s a very good thing.
Final Musings–The new acquisitions of McKee and Rupp have been good ones as they have clearly meshed quickly and easily into the Penguins’ system. They’ve chipped in with contributions in most areas of the game, making this team very deep and versatile through four lines of offense and three lines of defense. The scary thing about the Penguins is that they continue to get goal production from a wide range of players, not just from Malkin and Crosby. When this happens, it makes it very difficult for teams to strategize against them because literally every player on this team has to be considered a potential goal-scorer. So far, it’s been very exciting, especially with the team’s new record of 5 consecutive road wins. That kind of momentum is a confidence-booster, especially given the fact that they have a West Coast road trip coming up.