Even without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby the Penguins are a dominant team. Pittsburgh is four games in and has earned a point in every contest. Kris Letang is looking to repeat last year’s All-Star performance while Matt Cooke is tied for the league lead in goals.
Teams can usually expect a bit of a let down in the first home game after a road trip. Family matters, obligations, and rest usually take precedence over hockey on these occasions. This is even more applicable after a West Coast journey.
Indeed, sloppy play and fatigue were all factors in last night’s game. Despite the messy work, the Penguins skated away satisfied with their third win of the young season.
Marc-Andre Fleury was not one of the players that succumbed to typical home-coming symptoms. Flower was terrific against the Panthers, stopping 32 of 34 shots. Eleven of those saves came in the third period. For fans concerned that Fleury would repeat his slow start from last year, consider that he now recorded his third win of the season—a feat he didn’t accomplish until November 15 last season.
Also impressing last night were Cooke and James Neal.
Cooke recorded his third goal of the season last night. It took the gritty veteran 13 games last year to reach three goals. He quickly is becoming a reliable secondary scorer for the Penguins and may post more goals than either Pascal Dupuis or Tyler Kennedy this season.
Power forward James Neal finally exhibited the ‘power’ portion of his game last night. Neal scored at 6:39 of the third period to salt the game away. Over the first three games of this season Penguins fans have been treated to the finesse side of the former-Stars forward. Against Florida though, Neal stuck it out in front of the net and showed that he can bang around for a goal. He has now scored double the amount of regular season goals this year than he did last year in 16 less games.
Perhaps there was no better player on the ice last night than Joe Vitale. The rookie posted two assists and won 69% of his faceoffs—including 80% of his draws in the defensive zone. Vitale’s second period helper on Matt Cooke’s goal was the play of the game. He showed patience by not panicking when pressured by the defender. He also exhibited awareness by tossing the puck back to a trailing Cooke. Those are the two offensive traits coaches look for in third and fourth line players.
Vitale’s defensive game was also second to none. The Center blocked three shots against the Panthers and was a presence low in the defensive zone. It’s hard to see him being phased out when the Penguins get healthier.
One player Vitale is likely ahead of on the depth chart is Mark Letestu. The Penguins second-year man has struggled this season. His decision making is slow and his faceoff percentage is lower than both Vitale’s and Richard Park’s—the two players he is competing with for a roster spot. Fortunately for the 2010-11 Penguins rookie of the year, he is now on a one-way contract which means he would almost certainly be claimed on waivers if he was demoted to the AHL. That fact alone might keep him from being axed ahead of Vitale.
The final few offensive notes are on Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz.
Kunitz only has one point in four games this season. He has not been a factor offensively but has not exactly played poorly either. One reason to dismiss his woeful statistical start is because he has not been paired with his linemate of the last three years.
It also should be pointed out that Kunitz is a notoriously slow starter. In thee of his last four seasons he has only recorded one point in his first four games. He went on to score 21, 22, and 13 (in a 50 game season) goals those years.
Staal has not wowed offensively either. In fact, he has even struggled on the defensive end at times this season. Last night though, Staal played his best game of the year, assisting on Neal’s goal and causing havoc in the offensive zone. Look for the Center to catch fire soon.
Pittsburgh is in good shape defensively.
Ben Lovejoy—who has had a lackluster start to the season—was aggressive and physical against the Panthers. He threw his body around, joined the offensive rush, and blasted two shots on net. If he plays up to his potential like he did last night, the coaches will have a tough decision to make when Brooks Orpik is ready to return.
Matt Niskanen also played a strong game. He was second on the team with three shots and played almost five more minutes than Lovejoy. Two flaws in Niskanen’s game have become obvious through the first four contests this season.
- He often shoots into traffic.
- He is brutally slow when transitioning on defense.
The former star will have to work on the two areas as the season progresses. That said, he has been one of the better Penguins to date.
Lastly, Zbynek Michalek played a great game last night. The Czech may be the smartest defenseman on the Penguins roster.
Twice against the Panthers (late in the first and late in the third) Michalek left his man on a 2-on-2 to pressure the puck carrier. Normally this would be a suicide move, but both times that Michalek double teamed the offenseman Florida turned the puck over. This was because Michalek jumped to the puck handler when the two offenseman crossed. The double team crowed the area enough to make a pass nearly impossible and pressured the puck handler enough to get rid of the puck.
After a shaky start to the season in Vancouver, Michalek has rebounded with three very nice games.
One area that was concerning was the Penguins powerplay. Pittsburgh was 0-4 on the man-advantage and looked as though they had lost any organization. The umbrella design that worked so well in the preseason and in Canada was abandoned for a perimeter passing system. As a result, there was no threat in the slot and no powerplay goal for the first game this season.
If the Penguins are going to compete without Malkin and Crosby, the powerplay is one area that needs improvement.