It’s only been one game, and that’s a real caveat, but here’s what we’re thinking on a winning Friday morning.
#1: Don’t worry about Daniel Sprong’s ice time....yet
Daniel Sprong only played 6:47 last night and was basically stapled to the bench for the 3rd period - playing only 1 even strength shift for less than 20 seconds (and then a few carryover seconds after a power play ended). From nhl.com it’s a very brief history of events:
It might have made Mike Sullivan nervous that Sprong’s first shift of the game ended with Jakub Vrana putting the puck in the net. That wasn’t Sprong’s fault, but it never looks good to start a game like that.
Then, in a close game, the coach is going to go with the bottom-6 options he trusts. Obviously this means more appearances of Riley Sheahan and Matt Cullen on different lines.
For now, it’s not really a big deal Sprong barely played. Sure, you want to see him get minutes and success but it’s a long season. He’s got to earn it and start somewhere. At least Sprong was dressed over Derek Grant, that’s step 1.
Step 2 is standing out and making plays. Sprong in the high-slot got a shot to the net that Jake Guentzel batted past Braden Holtby on the power play. That’s great. More of that will mean more opportunities.
As it stood, Cullen-Sheahan-Sprong is sort of a weird mish-mash of playing styles and personalities and they got CRUSHED in possession last night.
In Sprong’s ultra-limited minutes he was on ice for 2 5v5 Corsi events for and 6 against (25%). Worse, he was on ice for 1 Scoring Chance for and 5 against at 5v5. If the game is going that way and it’s close and the Penguins are playing a good team, Sprong is going to sit a lot down the stretch. It’s not necessarily his fault, but if he and his line were performing better he’s likely to find more minutes, and surely will anyways as the season rolls on.
Fans want things to happen right now and though it’s important to find a place and a role for Sprong - who has the talent to add a lot! - it’s not make or break in an immediate fashion.
In fact, a long and slow audition and opportunity to build and grow is probably best for him rather than what happened last year when he played top six minutes for a handful of games, mostly was invisible and quickly got shuffled out. You don’t want one grand hurrah to see what Sprong can do, better to get him acclimated and established a bit and work up slowly rather than jump in the deep end where there’s a bigger chance of drowning.
#2: Matt Murray needs to find some comfort
Much is always made and analyzed about the goalie. Everyone has an opinion, and it always looks easy on super-slow replay where you know where the puck is going to go anyways.
Murray never got in a groove, giving up 3 goals in the first 8 minutes and looking understandably a bit shell-shocked and unable to find his angles and track the puck.
When Murray’s on the top of his game he’s steady and calm. Last night he played a bit deep, I still think he was battling and over-compensating after the second goal from Brooks Orpik which came in from the point after a failed clearing attempt.
But, each day is a new chance and moving forward the Pens won’t face the talent, scheme and confidence of a former-champion-who-just-scored-7-goals-the-night before again anyways.
#3: Not every game is going to be 7-6
Which leads us to point 3, games will settle down. The Pens have to be smarter too. You can point to every defenseman on the team just about for memorable failed clears, bad passes trying to leave the zone.
With the game 6-4 and seeming a bit in control with time ticking down to under 7 minutes left. Evgeni Malkin threw out a lazy pass right to the middle of the ice that was easily picked off with no one around to make up for it. That gave the Caps life and they tied the game 21 seconds later. That mistake is almost forgotten about at this point given the happy end result, but it was a terrible one.
Not breaking any news but the team needs to tighten up, play a bit harder and manage the puck better. In early October though, the stress level should be at about a 1. (Unless you’re back there tending goal, that is).
#4 3rd line dominance
As pointed out, the Pens 3rd line of Dominik Simon - Derick Brassard - Bryan Rust had a really good preseason together. They kept it rolling last night:
Simon: 78.9% Corsi (15 for, 4 against), 9 scoring chances for, 2 against
Brassard: 74.1% Corsi, 8 high danger scoring chances for, 0 against
Rust: 68.6% Corsi For, 11 HD chances for, 0 against
—Rust was also picking up a lot of extra minutes- his 13:31 5v5 played was 5th most among Pens forwards behind only basically the star players (Guentzel, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel). For a while Rust was basically double-shifting with Cullen-Sheahan. He’s probably one of the more important “under the radar” type pieces on the team right now with his speed and ability to tilt the ice in Pittsburgh’s favor. Not tough to see why that type of guy is a coach’s favorite.
—Brassard, well more on him from Gretz, which sums it all up. It’s pretty telling that from 2016-18, when it’s Pens vs. Caps in the playoffs, whichever team has had the better 3rd line center performance has won the series (Nick Bonino in 2016 and 2017, Lars Eller in 2018). Brassard at 100% could and hopefully should tip that balance back to Pittsburgh next spring, if it comes to that. He certainly was way better than Eller last night.
—Simon is still the type of guy under-appreciated and one we called plain and vanilla. But he’s one the team loves. Players recently called him one of the “top 5 hockey minds on the team”. And that was on display when he rotated back to cover the point for Brian Dumoulin, then made the simple (and correct) play to get the puck to the net that Brassard was able to score on. Great play by Simon, hopefully he can keep producing in this role since that has been an issue before as far as long stretches of goal-less and few points.
#5 The road ahead looks very favorable
If you haven’t been all that conscious about the upcoming schedule, October is a very, very friendly month for the Pens.
The NHL is a parity driven league. All the teams have good players and on any given night any NHL team could beat another.
That said, Pittsburgh’s October is very sweet. Two of the next three games are against the Montreal Canadiens - whom most observers expect to be near the bottom of the standings and a team the Pens swept in 2017-18.
The Pens get Vegas on the 11th (knocking out the Marc-Andre Fleury return early this year). For the Golden Knights however, this will be their 3rd game in 4 nights AND they play in Washington the night before. The Pens are off for 4 days before the game. That’s a big schedule inequality that’s hugely favorable to Pittsburgh.
Then, other than a tough trip to Toronto - and just dealing with the miles of a Western conference swing - the rest of the month is getting lowly Vancouver (twice), plus Calgary and Edmonton. And, not pictured above, a home game against NYI to finish out the month.
And no back-to-backs! After clearing Washington, the Pens couldn’t hand-pick a more favorable NHL schedule for the first month. Now the only challenge is keeping the focus/energy high to get off to a better start than last year.