The Penguins had already played three preseason contests at the brand-new CONSOL Energy Center, but Thursday’s regular-season opener was different. This one was for real.
The outdoor “big screen” was back for fans to watch the game outside – albeit a much smaller version to fit in a new, temporary space. Fans greeted the players as they made a red-carpet arrival. The pregame presentation, narrated by Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange, centered around the team’s slogan for the season, “Destiny Has a New Home,” and turned decidedly poignant when Mario Lemieux appeared alone in the spotlight, christening center ice with a small bottle of melted ice from the old Mellon Arena.
And, to raise the excitement and the stakes a little further still, there was the inaugural opponent – the Philadelphia Flyers, the Penguins’ cross-state and fiercest rivals. For Pittsburgh, opening night at the new palace that saved its hockey club couldn’t have been scripted any better – that is, until the puck dropped.
The Penguins came out jumping in the first period, firing 15 shots on rookie netminder Sergei Bobrovsky with nothing to show for it. Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped nine to keep the game scoreless in the first frame, but surrendered the new building’s first regular-season goal to a speedy Daniel Briere on the power play just 2:51 into the second.
“Obviously you want to play with the lead, you want to get the first one, and it took a little of the wind out of our sails, I guess,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski.
By the end of the second period, Pittsburgh was looking at a two-goal deficit. Tyler Kennedy cut the lead in half early in the third, but that was quickly negated when the Flyers’ Claude Giroux scored a deflating, unassisted shorthanded goal. The Penguins battled back to within one again, but could never quite get the equalizer as the Flyers handed them a 3-2 loss to spoil opening night.
“You’re down 3-1 and all you’re trying to do is put some pressure on them, get some pucks on net, and one got in,” said defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who set up Goligoski for the Penguins’ final tally. “You could see that we got more jump in our legs and we were going a little bit. Unfortunately, it was a little too late.”
And, with the Penguins outshooting the Flyers, 31-27, Fleury was edged by that slender, one-goal margin by a 22-year-old rookie goaltender from the Russian Super League that no one knew much, if anything, about.
“We were searching for video of him from this morning on,” when Bobrovsky was announced as a surprise starter, said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “He found a way to keep it out of the net. I think we hit a couple posts, it looked like we had some opportunities, but the goalie plays well when it stays out of the net.”
Even Evgeni Malkin, not many years removed from the Russian Super League himself, couldn’t provide any kind of scouting report .
“I’ve never seen this guy play, never met with him,” Malkin said. “He played very well tonight. It’s a little bit harder because you don’t know how he plays. We played physical and lots of shots, but not good luck tonight.”
Indeed, luck seemed to elude the Penguins time and time again as they had plenty of opportunities that hit posts or went wide of the goal.
“I think we can do a better job of hitting the net,” Bylsma said. “But there were lots of times that the puck was around the cage, and I liked what I saw from that. On the power play, I think both Geno [Malkin] and Sid [Crosby] liked what they saw; there was a lot of net there, we were fighting for loose pucks and had chances at the net.”
In a game of inches, did the emotion of opening the new building prove to be a distraction to the home team?
“I hope not,” Goligoski said. “It’s one of those nights – opening the building, a rivalry game – but I think both teams were excited to play.”
And now, after officially breaking the ice in their new home, the Penguins can get back to the business of the remaining 81 games.
“Getting the season underway is a return to normalcy,” Bylsma said. “There’s been a lot of hype and excitement about the building and opening up, and now we have to get back to practice and start game two when Montreal comes in here on Saturday.”