On May 16th, after Penguins CEO David Morehouse announced the firing of General Manager Ray Shero, Dejan Kovacevic had an exclusive sitdown interview with owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle.
It was during this interview, Lemieux made it clear, they didn't like the way the team played. Lemieux said 'The grit, the character. Even on the special teams, you’ve got to have some guys in the playoffs with grit, with character, as well as speed.'
Later on adding about the type of players, 'You need speed. Look at Montreal, the way they’re built. They have some smaller forwards, but they’re all speedy and they’ve got grit, and they’ve got character. That’s probably what we’d like to have.'
The Penguins have dominated the first two games but seeing some moments of grit and character, is a good thing and as the teams develops into a playoff machine, it will be important for Mike Johnston to keep those to the proper time and place that require a response.
There was a little bit of grit and sand paper with Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist skating in the dirty areas around the net to help create havoc near the crease to give Sidney Crosby some extra space.
Pascal Dupuis, returned from his surgically repaired knee, bouncing all all over the ice using his speed to doggedly pursue the puck for Brandon Sutter and Evgeni Malkin.
It has to make Lemieux and Burkle quite happy seeing new forwards Blake Comeau and Steve Downie confront Anaheim center Ryan Kesler after he hit Kristopher Letang with a hard check that sent the defensemen backwards or last night seeing Simon Despres, a player who was sent to the doghouse from the last coaching staff, fight James Van Riemsdyk.
Johnston wasted NO time in his first official game to show the fans in Pittsburgh that he takes his role as the coach seriously. He started the game with Kunitz, Crosby and Hornqvist matched up against Anaheim's top line of Patrick Maroon, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry for 43 seconds. The whoa moment just came 80 seconds later as he sent the Crosby line back out on the ice for a neutral zone faceoff against the fourth line of Matt Beleskey, Nate Thompson, and Tim Jackman for a 70 second shift.
Those of you unfamiliar with the coaching move, it is called line matching.
Meanwhile, all anyone wanted to talk about this offseason and training camp was just how different the Penguins were going to be under Johnston. He wanted speed, more passing stick to stick and less reliance on chipping the puck off the boards/glass to clear the zone. We would see more passing in the defensive zone from defensemen to defensemen, breakouts utilizing the middle of the ice utilizing the centers to move up the ice with speed.
Against the Ducks, Penguins attempted to pass the puck in the defensive zone to another player in the defensive zone 71 times after gaining possession of the puck. Only 17 times did the puck result in a lost possession for a 76% success rate on the first pass. Each game, I'll be tracking the success of each pass after first possession of the puck. By comparison, Penguins attempted just 22 passes from the defensive zone to another player in the neutral zone, 14 (63%) were successful.
Crosby on a Mission
On Thursday night, Crosby finished with two goals, one assist, and six attempted shots. He followed up on Saturday night against the Maple Leafs scoring one goal, two assists, and five attempted shots in the Penguins 5-2 victory in Toronto. If Crosby plays all season as if he's got something to prove after two straight years of disappointing playoff performances, it could be a career season for him as he's never started the season with more than four points in his first two games of a season. Those four points came on the night of his return from his concussion against the New York Islanders. The other career high was three points in 2009-2010.
Kris Letang was expected to benefit the most playing in Mike Johnston's up-tempo puck possession game and after two games, it would appear the obvious shackles placed on Olli Maatta by the former coaching staff could have limited the production from the rookie defensemen. Not so this season as Johnston and his staff want defensemen to play quick and be aggressive. Maatta has taken advantage of the freedom immediately by getting the primary assists on three goals on Thursday night. Pretty good for a guy who missed all of the exhibition games and probably won't get much power play time with Christian Ehrhoff, Letang, Paul Martin, and Evgeni Malkin getting their time at the points.
It is hard to imagine many scenarios outside of winning a Stanley Cup that has goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury returning to the Penguins next season. He's had some monumental collapses in the playoffs since winning the Cup in 2009 and things didn't exactly go as imagined on opening night with two unacceptable goals against due to his mental breakdowns against roaming out of the net. Beyond the two goals, Fleury was shaky again outside his crease under no pressure and trying to move the puck up to his defensemen. The lack of improvement to be just an average puck handler makes you seriously consider asking if Fleury has the desire to be great and not just a great guy with outstanding athleticism.
Another interesting coaching development to watch is see how Johnston approaches the deployment of lines after a tv timeout.
Thursday night, Johnston had Nick Spaling on the ice for four of the nine faceoffs following a tv timeout. As expected, after both tv timeouts following a penalty, Johnston started the forward combination of Brandon Sutter and Dupuis as the top penalty-killing unit. In the third period, the fourth line of Nick Spaling, Zach Sill and Craig Adams got two shifts after a timeout.
Last night, Malkin had four shifts after the tv timeout, three with Sutter and Dupuis and one with Sill and Downie.