New head coach Mike Johnston wants to see his Penguins playing an uptempo, puck-possession game – giving opposing teams trouble with their speed, jumping on opportunities to make plays, encouraging defensemen to join the offense.
So, what did he think of the club’s first attempt?
“Well, it was certainly exciting,” Johnston said of the 6-4 final over the Anaheim Ducks that was also his first NHL win.
Perhaps a little too exciting, with the Penguins building a 3-0 lead in the opening period, then watching it slip away into a 3-3 tie just past the midway point of the second?
“I thought, the first 10 minutes, I really liked our game,” Johnston said. “Maybe [for] 10-15 minutes, I thought we had great puck possession, great energy. I thought as the game went along, certainly [because of] special teams, there were momentum shifts in the game. And how we handle those shifts and how we manage the puck at certain times in the game, I said to the guys, those are things we need to improve.
“But, first game out of 82 games, it’s good to get the win and now we’ve got some building blocks going forward.”
The momentum shifts included a disallowed goal for the Penguins, and Pittsburgh giving up six power plays and one unsuccessful penalty shot, and the Ducks’ offensive weapons – like Corey Perry (3G), Ryan Kesler (1G, 2A) and Ryan Getzlaf (2A) – took full advantage.
“We got into penalty trouble, didn’t kill some of those off and they got momentum,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “There’s a lot of game left [with the 3-0 lead]. They have some guys who are pretty dangerous, and they capitalized when they got the chances.”
But the Penguins found a way to regain their composure and get the goals they needed to come up with the win, and there were plenty of good signs overall for the home team in game one.
Crosby’s wrist issue from last season didn’t appear to bother him as he collected two goals and an assist on the night. Sophomore defenseman Olli Maatta, coming off shoulder surgery that had him questionable for the start of the season, played strong on both sides of the puck in recording his first career three-point game. Winger Pascal Dupuis, seeing his first action since going down with a torn ACL/MCL last December, tied his career high with four points (1G, 3A).
“He doesn’t look too sharp right now,” joked Crosby, Dupuis’ longtime linemate. “I’m just really happy to see him do well. It’s been a long time, and how hard he’s worked to get back to feeling and looking the way he does. It’s not easy to come back from an injury and play game one of the season. He’s worked hard for it.”
And star center Evgeni Malkin, who missed the entire preseason with an undisclosed injury, felt strong enough to be on the opening-night roster, playing on Brandon Sutter’s wing as he eases back into the lineup and becomes more familiar with the Penguins’ new system and players.
“It showed a lot for him to say, ‘I’m going to play tonight; I’ll play as many minutes as I can,’” Johnston said. “I was really happy with how he played.”
Newcomer Patric Hornqvist, acquired in the James Neal trade this summer, made a fast impression. Playing on the top line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Hornqvist scored the Penguins’ first goal of the season just 5:16 in, and shot through traffic to do it – a welcome sight for a team in need of net-front presence. Another newcomer, forward Blake Comeau, also put up his first goal.
“I felt good out there,” Hornqvist said. “I think we skated a lot today, we moved the puck good and created some scrum around the net and obviously scored some goals, too.”
The Penguins will take the win – “We did a good job of sticking with it after losing the lead, so we’ll just have to keep getting better, but a win is a win,” Crosby said – but it’s clear the new-look Penguins are a work in progress.
“That was a big win against a good team so everybody’s happy; we’ve got a lot of things to work [on], though,” Hornqvist said. “We turned the puck over way too many times in the second period and they came back, and that can’t happen on home ice. We have to play more disciplined. But it’s a long road. We stepped up in the third period and won the game, and that’s all that matters.”
For Johnston, it’s all about making the right decisions when the play with the puck just isn’t there.
“If you want to be a puck-possession team, you want to hang on to the puck and you don’t want to force plays. I thought tonight, if you really look at it, we forced some plays. We have certain things you do with the puck when you’re under pressure, whether it’s stick pressure or physical pressure. For the majority of the game we did it, and then you saw us when we didn’t do it; it cost us.
“So we have to get better in those areas – that we get support to the puck carrier, No. 1, and then we make a few better decisions with the puck if we want to be a puck-possession team.”