Shift Work: What we learned from the first glimpse of the Penguins
Well, then… that was quick.
Penguins fans walked away in May after a stunning series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning wondering what had happened to their team. One power play goal. No Sidney Crosby. No Evgeni Malkin. And no single explanation for how they let a 3-1 lead slip away.
The 2010-11 season was defined by everything the Penguins overcame – notably significant, long-term injuries to their three top centers, the Sid-Geno-Jordan (Crosby-Malkin-Staal) triumvirate that was the backbone of the team’s championship hopes – and in the end it was Pittsburgh that yielded when they should’ve stood strong. The first four games of that series weren’t necessarily pretty, but the double-OT victory in Tampa seemed to indicate this team had enough character and talent to make its mark without its full* arsenal. Just as they lost one center at a time over the course of the year (with only Staal returning for the playoffs), those last three games slipped away and left everyone in the Civic Arena’s shadow wondering what could’ve been.
* - All due respect to Arron Asham, but if he’s your team’s leading goal scorer in a playoff series, something is probably amiss.
That physical shadow is slowly disappearing, and if our small sample of this 2011-12 edition of the Pens is any indication, the metaphorical one is fading, too. One game in, on the road and against the Stanley Cup runner-up, and Night One offered some promising evidence of what this team can do in the league’s top tier.
Power play woes? Check. After going 1-35 (Thirty-five!) in the playoffs and only converting a 25th-best (worst?) 15.8% all of last season, Pittsburgh went 2-2 on the power play in the first period last night and finished 2-3.
Strength back in the middle? Check. Malkin continues to look healthy, aggressive, and determined to make everyone remember just how good he is. Staal wasn’t around this time last year and, aside from a couple of sloppy moments during Vancouver’s comeback (especially on the second goal), it’s easy to see that his two-way contributions simply make this team better.
You can’t overestimate what this team is still missing while a player of Crosby’s caliber continues to sit on injured reserve with lingering symptoms from last year’s concussions; however, his return has been delayed enough that realists understand this team must be evaluated without him and must be expected to do more than tread water in his absence. It’s clear that the organization, top to bottom, knows this as well.
And Marc-Andre Fleury… he just looked ready. I can’t remember Fleury looking that aggressive and confident in the spring. Last night wasn’t perfect, but he caught just enough of shots during defensive breakdowns in the third period and overtime to keep them out of the net and bring things to overtime where, well, he shut down both attempts he faced including Alex Burrows’s sick, patient back hand drag.
On the wings, newcomer James Neal asserted himself right away and flash speed while driving into the offensive zone, bringing the kind of life from the edges the Penguins have been looking for each of the last two seasons. Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis logged solid minutes and Steve Sullivan showed some serious wheels on the forecheck, especially in overtime, where he teamed with TK and Neal to give the Penguins their best chance in the extra period. And Matt Cooke made headlines with his skill and timing rather than his rep (earned, mind you) for aggressive, borderline hits. His shorthanded goal to regain a two-goal lead in the second period, his second score of the night, helped contain a the momentum Vancouver had gained.
The biggest question mark is left on defense. Even without Ryan Kesler, Vancouver is a high-powered team that has more than enough to give a defensive unit fits on its best day. On the first day of the regular season, with a cross-country road trip behind them, the Pens’ blue-line looked slow and inconsistent. Paul Martin was minus-2, Zbynek Michalek was minus-3 and sloppy on a few assignments, but Kris Letang did come through to cover for a few mistakes, earned two assists, and drew first blood in the shootout on the way to the extra point.
There’s no more reason to panic over the defense than there is to start booking Stanley Cup hotel rooms just yet. The offense will have its down nights, leaving Fleury and the defensemen to pick up the slack. This back and forth has 81 more games for us to enjoy – it’s just really nice to know this organization stepped up right away to take itself out of the shadow of last year’s playoff breakdown.