Since the Penguins last took the ice at CONSOL Energy Center, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury rode a strong start that included three shutouts in four games to an unexpected, four-year, $23-million contract extension. Pittsburgh hit the road for five games – their longest trip of the season – and returned with a 4-1 record. There were two big wins – 4-1 over the Minnesota Wild and 6-1 over the Buffalo Sabres – and two nailbiters – 4-3 in Winnipeg and 2-1 in Toronto. And there was one very lopsided loss, 5-0 to the New York Rangers.
Forward Beau Bennett made his regular-season debut in the last two games of the trip, after a two-game conditioning stint in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that saw him rack up five assists. He joined the third line alongside Brandon Sutter and Steve Downie while the top two lines shuffled, pairing summer acquisitions Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling with Evgeni Malkin and reuniting the longtime trio of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. Dupuis responded to the top-line promotion by scoring both goals in Toronto.
“You know in the past that group’s had chemistry, and he hasn’t been on the line in quite a while now because he wasn’t in training camp and had been out most of the year, so putting them back together was good,” said head coach Mike Johnston. “But I also thought Hornqvist, Geno and Spaling were a real good line for us – they had chances, they created and that’s what we need. We need depth to our lineup. Sutter’s been just a rock every night for us.”
While the return of Bennett increases Pittsburgh’s forward depth, backup netminder Thomas Greiss put up a solid performance in Toronto – particularly in the game’s last two minutes, where the Penguins were shorthanded with a one-goal lead – and gives the team a solid, veteran option during a busy month of games, including three consecutive Friday-Saturday back-to-backs.
“He’s played three games now and he’s going to play more, so it gives us a chance to make sure Flower [Fleury] doesn’t get overplayed this month,” Johnston said. “I thought Thomas was just calm in the goal; he’s relaxed out there. At the end he was under pressure, but he just held his position well.”
The defense saw the return of Robert Bortuzzo, who had yet to play this season due to injury, at the start of the five-game trip. In addition to size and physicality, Bortuzzo pitched in a few points (1G, 2A) over the next four games. Then there’s 20-year-old sophomore Olli Maatta who, nine days after having a cancerous thyroid tumor removed, participated in the team’s Thursday practice in Toronto and could return within a week, well ahead of his original, four-week timeline.
“I feel normal,” Maatta said. “Obviously I missed 10 days, I didn’t do anything [since] the surgery, but I’m feeling better every day; my body feels good. I want to come back tomorrow, but I’ve got to take it easy first, got to make sure I’m 100 percent and can help the team. I’m good to go as long as I feel good.
“It’s a really good thing we found it early; it hasn’t really bothered me before and it’s not going to bother me again. It’s just another bump in the road; I got over it and now I can start playing hockey again.”
The Penguins’ league-best power play didn’t put up its usual gaudy numbers on the trip – Winnipeg, New York and Toronto all managed to keep them off the board with the man-advantage – but the penalty kill shined. The Penguins allowed just one power-play goal in 21 attempts over the five games, climbing up the league rankings to land second behind Chicago with an 88.7-percent success rate. And, after a streak of 39 consecutive penalty kills ended against the Rangers, Pittsburgh rebounded by going six-for-six against the Maple Leafs to end the trip.
“We had the one goal scored, but I thought our penalty kill has given our team a lot of confidence,” Johnston said. “And we have to be able to play in games like this [where] you have a 2-1 lead, you have to kill a penalty at the end of the game. I thought it was a real character win.”
“It’s all about dedication, blocking shots, hard work and goaltending, and all these pieces were on point tonight,” Dupuis said.
Now the Penguins return home to face the Rangers, who arrived in Pittsburgh Friday and rested while the Penguins battled the Maple Leafs and traveled home. The first game after an extended trip can result in a flat start for the home team, but that’s something the Penguins can’t afford after Tuesday’s loss to the team that also eliminated them in last year’s playoffs. New York beat Pittsburgh at its own game, jumping out to a fast start from the drop of the puck and never looking back.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance; we just got outworked,” Crosby said. “Once we did finally get our feet under us, it was an uphill climb from there. You can’t start a game like that on the road against a pretty hungry team and expect to come out of it and be OK. I think we paid the price and got what we deserved with the effort we had there, especially early on.”
The Penguins got back to executing the way they wanted in Toronto, however, jumping out to early shot advantages of 5-0 and 9-1.
“The focus has been since day one of preseason that we need to get a great start to games to put teams on their heels,” Dupuis said. “Especially when you play on the road, you want to take the crowd out of it, and we took the momentum right away.”
They’ll need to do the same thing if they hope to avenge their embarrassment against the Rangers.
“Obviously we have a chance to redeem ourselves [quickly],” Dupuis said. “Knowing a little more what to expect, knowing what style of hockey we need to play to beat them … it’s going to be a good challenge on a back-to-back night, but they’re a team we definitely need to beat.”