Four games into the 2015-16 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally got into the win column Thursday with a 2-0 shutout of the Ottawa Senators. And they did it by making some changes to what hadn’t been working so well in their first three contests.
A loaded-up first power play unit with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patrick Hornqvist and Kris Letang generated more offensive zone-time and chances. Dynamic rookie Daniel Sprong saw an increased role – partly as the beneficiary of yet more bad luck for Beau Bennett, who went on IR with an unspecified injury – and took full advantage, attempting five shots and netting his first NHL goal.
But the most significant change came when head coach Mike Johnston made the difficult decision to scratch 36-year-old defenseman Rob Scuderi, ending the veteran’s streak of 131 consecutive games played, and replace him with 22-year-old Adam Clendening, whose speed and puck-moving style is a better fit with how Johnston wants to get his blueline involved in the offense.
The safe bet was that the Penguins would stick with that winning lineup Saturday, when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs. That bet, however, would’ve been wrong.
“Clendening’s not in tonight; Scuderi’s going back in,” Johnston said. “We know what we get with Rob; he’s a great penalty killer, he’s a real stable veteran influence on our group. I thought Adam Clendening had a good camp with us and, as a result of that, he’s earned a game to play, and we wanted to get him in. I didn’t want him sitting too long. So that was the decision we made that day, and we’ll continue to make a daily decision [on] what we’re doing with our defense.
“But I like the progress. I thought Olli Maatta took a step last game, and it’s going to take him some time, just getting back after the injuries the last two years. And I thought [Brian] Dumoulin keeps taking small steps every night. So it’s good to see, with our young defense, that they’re starting to progress – the guys on the ice and then we have some guys in the background that are going to start to push for jobs.”
For Johnston, that’s all part of figuring out how the chemistry of this group of Penguins will develop after an offseason of significant change.
“We’re not there [yet],” he said. “We just have too many new combinations of defense pairs and forward lines; every forward line’s different. I haven’t looked around the league that close to see if other teams are facing similar situations, but it does take some time for that chemistry to develop.
“We’re still trying to settle into the exact defense pairs that we really like. The forward lines are starting to form themselves. A young guy like Daniel Sprong keeps pushing for more ice time, pushing for more responsibility, which is good to see, and that’s what you need in your lineup. But, as the chemistry of the group goes, it’s the chemistry of those subgroups – the lines and defense pairs – that really have to come along.”
Crosby – who’s been playing with Kessel and longtime linemate Chris Kunitz, but was also lined up with Kessel and Malkin on a Saturday-morning drill – agreed that developing chemistry will take time.
“The last couple years, there’s been a lot of changeover with a lot of different guys,” Crosby said. “I think you just try to communicate. Everyone’s trying to get on the same page as far as the structure of the team and then, as a line, how we want to play and want we want to do out there.”
One change that figures to stay in effect Saturday is that high-powered first power play unit.
“In the preseason, we had an opportunity to go with split units – Sid had a unit which was his line, and Geno [Malkin] had a unit which was his line – [and] the body of work in the time they’ve had hasn’t been great. But I thought last game, when we put them together, we had some really good looks on the power play.
“For me, the power play, you’re talking about your top scorers. If your top scorers are on a roll and your power play’s not working then, obviously, you have some concern. But I think right now, it’s just that once those guys start to get going, feeling comfortable with each other, we’re going to be fine.”
Johnston mentioned last year’s inconsistent power play – which started the season converting at near-historic rates but finished at No. 10 overall – as a factor in why he had initially tried to balance the scoring.
“Our power play went through two phases last year, if you remember; early we were red-hot, almost out of the norm, and then, later, we faded, so we want to get it more consistent. It’s a big factor when you’re looking at one-goal games, and we’ve had a few of those.”
Crosby’s hope for the power play is simple.
“Just score,” said the captain, who’s been held pointless so far. “We’ve had some chances; find ways. When you’re struggling, everyone always talks about just getting pucks to the net, but, really, you have to simplify things. Maybe get a dirty one. If anything, maybe improve our entries a bit more so we get some more zone time. But, when we get in there, we’ve generated some good chances. We just need to score.”
That also goes for Crosby, who’s had success against the Maple Leafs over the years with 49 points (21G, 28A) in 31 games played. That’s more than any non-division opponent.
“I hope [the opponent helps],” he said. “There’s been some really good chances the last couple games. I think we’re generating a lot; that’s the biggest indicator, I think. When the chances are there, you trust that they’re eventually going to go in. It’s a matter of just seeing one go in and, hopefully, they’ll all go in after that.”
Kessel, who’s had a goal and an assist, would surely love to see some go in against the team that traded him to Pittsburgh on July 1.
“It’s a different game, but it’s one of 82,” said Kessel, who talked to a couple of his former teammates after their first win of the season last night in Columbus. “It’ll be different, but it’s going to be fun. Obviously I enjoyed my time in Toronto, I loved the city, but it was time for a change. I’m looking forward to it.”