Could anyone else feel Ray Shero's smirk from the press box as the game unfolded? It was the gratification knowing a carefully devised plan was coming to fruition.
Shero made four significant moves to bring players to the Pens. Each player has established himself in the NHL in some way; each has a specific job with a distinct personality. It's a huge gamble for any general manager to make so many changes especially when there is less time to make those changes look seamless on the ice. But there's a reason Shero is one of the best in the biz.
Last night was far from a perfect game, but what the Pens proved was they have a winning roster that is developing greater chemistry with each game. You could see everything really click with certain players and it's no surprise they were ones who left a mark on the game.
I'll start with Kris Letang who was very missed on the blue line after jumping in and out of the lineup with lower body/toe injuries. While injured, the Pens missed his puck movement finesse overall, but especially on the power play. His presence on the point immediately made a difference and the Pens cashed in three times in six tries.
For some perspective, the Pens only scored three PPGs on 20 tries in the nine recent games without Letang. There is no question Letang is the Pens' defensive MVP.
Then you have Pascal Dupuis, who has had two solid consecutive seasons and is up for a new contract this summer. Along with Matt Cooke, he better get one. Usually as a player reaches his mid-30s, his play slows down, but not Dupuis who looks like he's just entering his prime.
He netted his 20th goal of the season on the power play (!!) tying Patrick Kane (!!!) in the goal-scoring race. It took him 82 games to net 25 goals last season. He's turned into a scoring machine which we know is due to his linemates, but also because this is a guy who doesn't take a night off.
Our new fan favorite Finn, Jussi Jokinen. Many are deeming his acquisition as Shero's best move of the season and he's making a strong case for it. With two goals on the night, Jokinen has been subtly and not-so-subtly lethal in his last three games. The Pens Radio reported that (at the time) Jokinen had taken four shots in a Pens uniform and three of them were goals.
Think about that for a second.
Jokinen is most known for his quick hands, which helped the Pens cash in during the shootout against the Rangers. But having good hands isn't just what you can do with the puck on your stick, but anticipating what to do with your stick before you have possession of the puck. Jokinen's redirection goal, his second of the game, is something we're used to seeing from the likes of Sidney Crosby. Redirections are a goalie's worst nightmare; all the more reason to utilize the skills up front, which means more defensemen finding ways to get pucks on net.
Speaking of which...
That pass to Jokinen came from none other than Douglas Murray. You can talk about how slow he is all you want, but this man sure packs a punch on defense. Literally. We know he can knock players around like bowling pins, but his shot is very underrated. Murray had a few scoring opportunities toward the end of the game, but nothing there. Of course, he had his own special moment when fighting B.J. Crombeen. Why anyone would want to fight a boulder, I have no idea. Give this guy a shot (again, literally) and he might surprise us.
And then we come to Jarome Iginla. Everyone is probably familiar with Josh Yohe's piece about Iginla shooting more. Well whaddaya know, it worked beautifully. Snipe job from Iginla on a power play that was tipped by Kunitz. Again, Iginla's initial shooting hesitations were all symptoms of new-guy-on-new-team. Along with Evgeni Malkin, Iginla and Kunitz have created a line that is really meshing nicely. What happens when Crosby returns? I guess we'll see.
Brenden Morrow scored his first goal and had his best game against the Carolina Hurricanes, and this game was a continuation of that. Morrow was made to be the on Pens and that was on display with his assist on Jokinen's first goal: bursting to the goal, shrugging off defensemen along the way, and crashing the net. This is how he rolls and it's why Shero picked him up. Get pucks on net and you know a fearless Morrow will be in the blue paint, ready to pounce.
Since this is technically a recap, I should mention Tanner Glass scoring his first in a Pens uniform. Am I happy for him? Sure, but I don't think he should be dressing if Joe Vitale is healthy. Faceoffs aren't the Pens' strongest suit, even with the addition of Jokinen, which is why I'm baffled to see a faceoff whiz like Vitale on the bench.
You can feel this team forming and the Pens are doing so at the right time which is most important. But like I mentioned, by no means is it smooth sailing. My biggest beef right now isn't Glass, but the penalty kill. Tampa scored all three goals on the power play in four chances and exposed how weak the middle of the ice is on the Pens PK. No need for alarm yet, but adjustments must be made before the PK is depended on in the final three minutes of a tie game in Game 7.
Overall, this was a great showing by the Pens thanks to the efforts of certain individuals who are creating a recipe for success. To think the Pens are without two monstrous reasons for the teams' success this season and Malkin is just starting to heat up...
Good times, my friends. Enjoy this as much as you can. The playoffs are right around the corner.