Last season Calgary scored more goals than any team in the NHL after Christmas. Vancouver represented the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals and Edmonton totaled five less wins than any other team in the league in 2010-11. Yet, the Oilers were the only squad to beat the Penguins on Pittsburgh’s 2011-12 opening swing through Western Canada.
Taking five of six possible points on a cross-coast, international trip in which Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Sidney Crosby combined to play just four out of nine man games is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, when the Penguins made the same trip in 2010 with Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury in the lineup the team only secured four of six points.
Special teams played the biggest role in the Penguins hot start. Pittsburgh tallied five powerplay goals over the three-game span. The Penguins didn’t notch their fifth man-advantage goal until the sixth game of the season last year. This season, five different players have posted the five PP goals. Two of those goals came from defensemen.
It isn’t just the powerplay that excelled this weekend either. Pittsburgh’s penalty killers fended off 11 straight penalties for a perfect 100% success rate. The streak is refreshing to see after the team surrendered eight powerplay goals in seven playoff games against Tampa Bay last year. Pittsburgh also gave up a powerplay goal and shorthanded marker in the season’s opening game last year.
Outside of special teams, both Fleury and Brent Johnson were spectacular on the road trip. Each made key saves late in the three contests to earn a point. Pittsburgh was outshot in two of the three games and gave up 91 shots on goal over the stretch. With only seven goals allowed, the Penguins netminders are sporting a 2.33 goals-against-average. Total, the Pens are allowing 30.3 shots per game.
Part of the reason why the team has given up so many shots is because of Paul Martin and Ben Lovejoy’s play. Neither shined during the trip.
Martin was especially brutal in game one. His aggressive jumps and drifting in the defensive zone left Zbynek Michalek out to dry and eventually led to a Vancouver goal. Martin tightened his game up against Calgary and played well in Edmonton. As a result the pair only finished plus -3 on the trip.
Lovejoy’s main problem has been his lack of aggression. His puck carrying confidence has not rolled over from the preseason. The Lovejoy that showed up in September was patient with the puck and joining the rush up ice. Those traits are yet to be seen in the regular season.
The 27-year-old’s physicality also decreased in the first three games. At no point was it more obvious than when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins shrugged off Lovejoy to crash the net and bang in the tying goal last night.
Making matters worse for Lovejoy is the fact that Matt Niskanen has played well thus far. Niskanen has not been stout defensively but has still managed to outplay at least one Penguins blueliner in every game to this point.
Offensively, the former Star has been terrific. Unlike Lovejoy, Niskanen has joined the rush and been aggressive at the point. His goal against Calgary was a result of hard work and persistence. When Brooks Orpik returns to the lineup it won’t be Niskanen that takes a seat—assuming he can stay consistent.
Not much needs to be said about Kris Letang. He was the Penguins best player last night and is tied for the NHL lead in points with five. Letang has totaled 10 shots on the year and is shooting at a 10% click. Last season he only shot at a rate of 3.4%. Expect his numbers to only increase once no. 87 is back in the lineup.
Offensively the Penguins have been stout. Eight goals is a gaudy number to post against Roberto Luongo and Miikka Kiprusoff.
Pittsburgh’s best offensive player has been James Neal. After much speculation about his fit with the Penguins Neal is off to a hot start. Last season the 20-goal-scorer only posted one marker and five helpers in his 20 games with the Penguins. Neal already has a goal and an assist in his first three games this season. No player created more opportunities during the stretch and he also appears to be the go-to-guy on the powerplay.
Most exciting of all is that Neal and Malkin worked smoothly together. Geno seemed comfortable and in sync with Neal during the first two games. The physical forwards could be a dangerous pair all season long.
Unfortunately, Steve Sullivan did not mesh with Malkin and Neal. Sullivan is at the point in his career where he needs to skate alongside a great player to be successful. Malkin is indeed a great player, but his style is a stark contrast to Sullivan’s. The off-season acquisition is a straight line player who thrives on speed and precision. He will find it much easier to play alongside Crosby and could even experience a boost if placed with Jordan Staal.
Secondary scoring was a major reason why the Penguins were able to earn a point in every game. Cooke especially was a pleasant surprise as he scored two goals against Vancouver. The controversial player didn’t notch his second tally until the tenth game of last season.
Tyler Kennedy slotted his first of the season against the Flames. While not overly impressive, the 21-goal-scorer did look dangerous with the puck in spurts. The opposite can be said for Pascal Dupuis and Mark Letestu.
Letestu struggled in camp and has looked slow during the regular season. He relies on his craftiness, brains, and hard shot to be successful. None of those traits came into play this weekend—as was evidence by his poor decision making in front of a gaping Edmonton net last night. If he does not step up his game Joe Vitale could have a permanent locker spot in the NHL.
Overall the trip was a success. Giving up over 30 shots per game is disappointing but pulling down five of six points means that the Pens are getting the job done. One concern is the team’s tendency to surrender leads late. Pittsburgh has been outshot 39-31 in the third period this year and surrendered leads to both Vancouver and Edmonton in the third period.
Last year this team made a habit of falling apart late. A repeat performance cannot happen if the Penguins want to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals.