Twelve days into the start of their NHL season, the Penguins faced game 8 tonight in Minnesota. Less than 24 hours ago, the team was in Winnipeg handing te Jets it's first win of the season. And they would see starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (rest) and top defenseman Kris Letang (suspension) removed from the lineup. The Pens would have to dig deep to beat the Minnesota Wild, and they found a way to just do that.
And the way to do that would be to have veterans step up. Brent Johnson had played strong in his previous two starts this season (both OT/SO losses) and he played well stopping 24 of 26 Wild shots. Chris Kunitz scored his first goal of the season, and an important one at that to open the game. Kunitz's goal was assisted by Pascal Dupuis, who tacked on a shorthanded goal of his own to close the scoring for Pittsburgh. Matt Cooke also fed into the veteran effort, tallying two assists on the night.
Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (and Brooks Orpik...and Tyler Kennedy....And Fleury...And Letang...) it's never going to be pretty- and to be sure this game won't make too many end-of-season highlight reels. But for a team that was 0-2-1 in it's last three games, it's an important win and at least earns the break-even point of a two game road-trip.
Some more thoughts on the game:
- Brian Strait, making his NHL season debut thanks to the Letang suspension, only lasted 6:32 of ice-time and few periods before leaving the game with the dreaded upper-body injury.
- Due to the Strait injury, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin's already heavy workload was burdened even further. BIg Z led the team with 29:20 TOI and Martin wasn't far behind with 29:04. That's almost half the game those two had to patrol the defense.
- On the flip side of the coin, Ben Lovejoy barely got 11 minutes of ice-time. Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen both at least got 19+ minutes...From the "It Doesn't Have to be Said" File: Hey, Reverend, coach doesn't have faith in you.
- Another game, another goal for James Neal. The confidence he is playing with right now is something to watch. On any given shift he's able to pick opponent's sticks, backcheck and create his own turnovers and make his own offense. Right now with the groove Neal is in, he doesn't need a playmaking center to put goals on the board, he's pretty much doing it all for himself.
- Faceoffs were a huge edge for Pittsburgh. Overall the team was 55% on the night, the top two guys were even better: Joe Vitale won 62% of his 14 faceoffs and Richard Park won 59% of his 22 draws. Those are huge numbers that the Pens were not getting in the second half of last season sans Crosby from the lineup.
- Minnesota's physicality was off the charts. They were only credited with 29 hits but had seemingly that many memorable big thumps all over the ice.
- Even when the Pens' powerplay scores (which they did, courtesy of Jordan Staal), they gave it right back less than a minute later. But according to the coaches, there was a reason- Steve Sullivan, who usually plays a point, needed an equipment repair, which left Dupuis to play out of position back there, which he rarely is called on to do. The Wild exploited this and got the special teams goal back.
- Not to worry though, the Penguins no. 1 ranked PK would be on the job to get the special teams edge back to Pittsburgh. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is a passer, and there's nothing wrong with that. But his pass bias is out of control. He needs to pretend to shoot, because that tipped Cooke's hand to pressure P-MB, and it was easy pickins for Dupuis to skate away on the breakaway.
- Steve MacIntyre: 1 shift, 0:23 played. For the whole night. At the risk of being mean and asking what his point is, what is he doing out there? Understandably the Pens were on a quick back-to-back roadtrip, perhaps calling someone up for the injured Kennedy wasn't feasible. But they did just call-up Strait today, is there a good reason why, say, Eric Tangradi couldn't have hopped on the plane with him?
But at the end of the day, a win on the road is a good thing, especially when it comes on the second day of a back-to-backer and it breaks a three-game winless streak. The Pens were able to get two points in the standings and get out of town before anything else bad happened injury wise. For tonight in October, that's about all you can ask for.