It's a Great Day For Hockey
Last night’s home opener started off with an eerily similar look to last season and finished with a great sense of promise for the year to come. Both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin suited up for the game in, well, suits… a sight those at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh and millions more with keesters on couches at home were hoping to avoid after last season’s multitude of injuries at center. Like the Penguins or hate them, this league needs those two guys on the ice doing the amazing things this game and their talent allow them to.
But there was no dread, no forlorn stares, no sense of panic in the pregame darkness. This is a team. The men donning the black and gold have been through all of this before, and no one on Dan Bylsma’s watch wants to hear about how hopeless they are without “Sid and Geno” any more than Crosby and Malkin demand all of the credit for success when they’re on the ice. A microscope is firmly fixed on every miniscule decision in Western Pennsylvania – be it regarding medical timelines or the fact that the Penguins decided to fly back from Edmonton on a post-game redeye rather than sleeping in Alberta. Everything’s newsworthy on Fifth Avenue, so the active members of the lineup are writing headlines.
Matt Cooke’s staying off of Brendan Shanahan’s radar for now and instead crashing the net; he has three goals in four games. Kris Letang is playing aggressively from the point without being reckless and has scored points in every game (for a team-leading total of six). James Neal, who had a slow stint with the Penguins after being acquired at the trade deadline, is showing what some time with new teammates can do and has scored two goals while making his presence felt on every shift so far. Tyler Kennedy and Steve Sullivan provide flashes of exceptional speed and dogged two-way play, helping to pressure opponents into poor decisions.
In the ultimate display of full-squad skill (as ultimate as any four-game stretch can be), the Penguins are winning in all three phases of the game. Perfect on the penalty kill (16) and effective on the power play (5-20), Pittsburgh is avoiding too many mistakes and shifting lines to account for injuries and matchups. Fleury hasn’t been perfect but has demonstrated brilliant sequences in goal when the team has needed him most. Two games, both on the road, did go to overtime, but any team in the league would take an opposite-coast road trip that nets five points out of six in three games, am I right?
The defense has looked better since its third-period struggles in Vancouver, but Florida wingers, namely David Booth, showed that our blue line may still suffer in the face of speed (keep your feet moving, Matt Niskanen). That can be said for just about every team in the league, but it’s up to the coaches and players to properly plan and execute strategies to minimize the impact on the final line of defense in goal.
Penguins fans got their first first-hand look of the best team anyone can hope for, given the circumstances: one with enough speed, talent, smarts and relentlessness to compete with anyone in the league. A young and confident goalie anchors a system installed by one of this leagues brightest coaches, so performances consistent with this one give any opponent reason to fear the Penguins.
Considering Pittsburgh’s two best players – two of the best on the league’s entire roster – were watching from a luxury suite, things stand to get a lot scarier for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. This is a team to be proud of every time they drop the puck, proving it is, indeed, always a great day for hockey.
All photos by Dave DiCello, http://hdrexposedphotography.com. Awesome stuff.