Penguins stay perfect in four games in western Canada

Credit: Courtesy of Highlight Store via Flickr Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Highlight Store via Flickr Wikimedia Commons

The Pittsburgh Penguins improved to 6–1–2 on Sunday night after a 5-0 shutout win in Vancouver. The Pens went into their Canadian road trip with several questions about the team’s overall strength and ability to play a 2-way defensive game, but, after winning all four games of the 11-day trip, most of those questions have been put to bed.

The Penguins, through their first few games, looked uninterested in playing on both ends of the ice. The whole team looked like they weren’t going to be able to hold onto a one or two goal lead. The Pens’ style of play will always have the team more likely to give up an odd-man rush, but they weren’t showing any kind of sense late in games where they held the lead. They were sloppy in the defensive zone, as well, and were unable to break out of the zone well.

With Justin Schultz out, the strength of the Penguins’ blue line was under scrutiny. Olli Maatta and Jack Johnson were underperforming, both of them having rough starts to the season. They seemed to get caught out of position every time they were on the ice through the first stretch of games, and the two defensemen needed to change something about their game.

Other than that, however, the first pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin had looked incredible, and the other two bottom pairing guys in Jamie Oleksiak and rookie Juuso Riikola have played like solid bottom 4 defensemen. The issue really was looking like forwards not wanting to play hard in their own defensive zone.

That changed in Toronto. The Penguins met the red-hot Maple Leafs after coming off two rough overtime losses against Montreal and Vancouver. From the way the Pens were playing defense, and the way the Leafs were scoring from the start of the season, it had all the signs of another early-season blowout, similar to last season’s 10–1 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks.

However, the Pens buckled down. They got an early power play, Evgeni Malkin snuck a shot underneath the skate of Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, and then the team played defense. The Pens kept the entire Maple Leafs squad off the board, with goalie Matt Murray registering his first shutout since the first round of the playoffs last season. The Leafs pulled their goalie early, and Evgeni Malkin went to work on the empty net, scoring another goal thanks to a lucky bounce off a Leafs player, and then assisted on the Pens’ third goal of the night by making a nice pass to Kris Letang, who finished Toronto off with a second empty netter.

That victory proved that the Pens were still an elite team, when the whole team committed to playing the game the right way, like head coach Mike Sullivan had been preaching after each of the losses. Jack Johnson had a great game and everyone went back home happy.

The Pens moved on to Edmonton next, where things almost fell apart. Neither team looked like they wanted to play defense, and the game went into overtime. Sidney Crosby scored a highlight reel goal on the backhand in the 3v3, undressing Ryan Strome and finishing with a sick backhand. The boys didn’t look great, but a win was a win, and the Oilers always seem to make games against the Penguins interesting.

After finishing in Edmonton, the Pens came knocking on Calgary’s door, and they kicked it in. The Pens routed the Flames, scoring nine goals and allowing one. It would’ve been Murray’s second shutout of the road trip, if not for a James Neal shot that came off his stick so slowly that it took Murray by surprise. Derek Grant, replacing Daniel Sprong, and Chad Ruhwedel, replacing Riikola, both made their first starts of the season, and although neither one of them managed to get on the scoring sheet (the only other penguin who didn’t register a point was Carl Hagelin), the two played a great game. It was a statement win from the team. Calgary played some of the worst defense I’ve ever seen that night, and the Pens took advantage.

That brings us to Saturday’s game against the Canucks. Derrick Brassard was out for the Penguins, resting a nagging lower body injury, which allowed Daniel Sprong to get back into the lineup. The Penguins had a rocky start in the first period, where the Canucks put a good deal of pressure on, trapping the Pens in their defensive zone for almost half the period. They managed to get out of the first without allowing a goal, however, thanks in part to some saves by backup goalie Casey DeSmith.

In the second period, Phil Kessel got the Pens on the board first, tucking in a rebound from an Olli Maatta point shot. The captain followed that up, finishing with another backhander after a nifty little passing play from Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon. The Pens were rolling and had all the momentum going into the third. Fourteen minutes in, Evgeni Malkin scored his fourth and fifth goals of the year in just under a minute. The first was a one-timer from the right side of the net, assisted by Daniel Sprong, who sent Malkin a beautiful shot-pass that he neatly deposited behind Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom. His second was classic Malkin. He skated into the slot on the rush, received a pass from Phil Kessel, then fired a wrister that beat Markstrom clean. Crosby ended the night’s scoring a carbon copy of Malkin’s first goal, except this time it was Oleksiak who fired the shot pass.

One last thing about the Canucks game: right before the anthems, the Canucks held a moment of silence for the victims of the Squirrel Hill shooting, which was just a real classy move.

We’ll see these Pens in the playoffs to be sure.