One game into the 2020-21 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ reconfigured roster has a little reconfiguring to do.
With just a weeklong training camp on which to base new line combinations, defensive pairings and special teams, the Penguins did strike some gold. Their third line, with newcomer Mark Jankowski centering Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann, was a fun-to-watch combination of speed, skill and hard work. They owned the offensive zone 85.71% of the time they were on the ice and were responsible for two of the Penguins’ three goals on the night.
(The other Pittsburgh goal? Sidney Crosby capitalizing on Flyers goalie Carter Hart’s attempted clear with a play that even Sidney Crosby shouldn’t be able to make after a five-month layoff.)
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Back to that bright-spot third line, though, where the Penguins have been searching for a center since letting Nick Bonino walk as a free agent in 2017. Jankowski impressed in his debut, but had plenty of praise for his wingers.
“[Tanev and McCann] are two fast players, they’re skilled, they can make plays, they’re smart and they always have their heads up looking for something,” Jankowski said. “I think the biggest thing is that we’re all hard on pucks in the O zone and our forecheck was good tonight, and that led to some chances.”
“It’s easy to play with those guys, especially off the puck,” Tanev said. “They see the ice really well. It was a treat to play with them together tonight, and hopefully we’re able to bring the same confidence and swagger to the next one.”
Not bringing much in the way of confidence or swagger in the opener, unfortunately, were new defensive acquisitions Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci. Both took costly penalties that ended with pucks in the back of the Penguins’ net, and Matheson – who looked good enough at camp to be elevated to the second pairing with John Marino – struggled at times in the defensive zone.
Head coach Mike Sullivan said that adapting to the Penguins’ style, which aims to get their defensemen more involved in the offense when a play is there, and to make the simple, safe play when it’s not, will just take time.
“He skates really well,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s evident when you look at his mobility and his ability to get back to pucks and his gaps. Mike’s trying to get used to the type of game that we play. We’re going to work with him here through the beginning part of the season to help him simplify his game in certain areas of the rink. But, to Mike’s defense, he’s trying to learn some of the concepts and the way we’re trying to play here. I don’t think he got the benefit of any puck luck tonight, either.”
Pittsburgh also didn’t fare well on special teams, where the Flyers went 2-for-3 on their power play chances. The Penguins scored on one of their three, with Crosby’s improbable goal coming at the end of a man-advantage that otherwise didn’t generate much.
“Specialty teams are a huge part of today’s game and we want to have a good PK,” Tanev said. “We weren’t happy with how the penalty kill was today, but that’s on us, and I think next game we’ll push the pace and do better in that situation.”
And what about Tristan Jarry, now the Penguins’ No. 1 netminder, who looked sharp early but ended up allowing six goals on just 25 shots?
“I think there were a few that Tristan could’ve been sharper on, but we could say that about all of us, so I’m not going to over assess any one player,” Sullivan said. “We all need to be better.”
Despite all of that – and the final score – the Penguins saw things to build on in this contest. They carried the play for large portions of the game, particularly at even strength.
“I don’t think the score of the game was an indication of how it was played,” Sullivan said. “I thought the types of breakdowns that we had resulted in some high-quality scoring chances against. We’ve got to do a better job of making sure we minimize some of those catastrophic-type scenarios.”
“Short training camp, new people coming in, just got to get the chemistry down,” Marino said. “I don’t think anyone in the locker room is too worried about it. We have a lot to build off of, and there’s going to be plenty more opportunity.”
There will be nothing but quick opportunities to turn things around from losses like this one, as the shortened season means games just about every other day. The Penguins stay in Philly and face the Flyers again on Friday.
“This game is not an easy game; it’s not for the faint of heart,” Sullivan said, in a comment on Matheson’s game that could apply to his team’s opening night performance as a whole. “You’ve got to make sure that you dust yourself off and you get back in the fight.”