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Thursday night thoughts on the Penguins scrimmage

What stood out on the simulated game night?


Some thoughts on tonight’s simulated game day for the Penguins:

—This game was a bit different since the Pens have a bigger compliment of players, affording each of the split squads a third line now that players have been cleared from their covid exposure related absence. And, for the first time, teams are a lot more balanced as well.

—The first period ended with the teams trading three goals in the order of Black, Gold, Black. The game was incredibly free-flowing with very few stoppages and plenty of skating and back-and-forth end-to-end play.

Jared McCann opened the scoring for Black when Patric Hornqvist took a puck away from Jack Johnson in the corner (imagine that). McCann received the puck in a dangerous spot right in front of the net and used quick hands to beat Tristan Jarry and make it 1-0.

One goal quickly begat a second goal, Adam Johnson started a strong first period by racing down the left wing and throwing a beauty of a saucer pass right by Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The pass dropped perfectly for Anthony Angello who had cut in behind Dumoulin and was able to put it by Matt Murray. Really nice play by the reserves.

Team Black got the lead back when Jarry pulled himself out of position to try and play a puck behind the net that Bryan Rust ended up getting to first, when the puck stopped short of the goalie’s trapezoid. Rust wrapped around and found Jason Zucker with a pass, and Zucker nicely recovered a pass in his skates and was able to still corral and get a shot off quicker by an out-of-place Jarry who was still recovering in the net.

—The younger guys looked good early. A. Johnson showcased his speed and was one of the more noticeable and best players out there in the first (not unlike Sam Lafferty and Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary in prior scrimmages). The venue of a same-squad camp scrimmage is perfect for players who will try hard and have some wheels to be able and stand out, and we saw that again.

—I believe at this point Zucker has more goals than his linemates in Rust and Evgeni Malkin in camp. He is a very fast player who covers a lot of ice (see above bullet point) but always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and he has the skill to convert. Looks like he’s fitting in very nicely to what could and should be a very powerful line for Pittsburgh.

—Nice to get a glimpse of Samuel Poulin and Pierre-Olivier Joseph for the first time in a while. Since each team had five defensemen, there was a bit of a rotation and Joseph looked calm and collected with the puck playing a shift with Kris Letang.

—In the second period the Team Gold third line (A Johnson - Lafferty - Angello) are just having their way with the Team Black third line (Poulin - Varone - Miletic), controlling zone play for most of the shift. But then Poulin got a breakaway when an errant puck trickled out of the zone, Poulin can’t settle the puck for a while, and when he does he is in tight and just shoots on Jarry.

—Team Gold scores to tie the game at 2. Murray makes one stick-check but Letang can’t clear the puck and it goes right to Teddy Blueger. Blueger shuffles the puck in as Murray attempts another poke check that whiffs.

—Gold almost gets another one, A. Johnson makes another great centering pass for Angello who gets a shot from point blank range that Murray stops.

—The matchups are interesting. The Malkin line is playing the Blueger line a lot. The Jake Guentzel line seems to be drawing the McCann line. And then both team’s third line of depth players going against each other. It’s not a lot of Malkin vs. Guentzel power on power, more the offensive line vs a checking line.

—Team Gold takes their first lead. Chad Ruhwedel can’t handle a bouncing puck and turns it over to Guentzel. Guentzel basically has a 2-on-1 and feeds Sheary through the defense of Juuso Riikola. Sheary quickly unloads the shot past Murray, 3-2 game.

—Late in the second, Patrick Marleau finds a way to tie the game for Team Black (much like last game!). He collects the loose puck from an errant shot behind the net and banks it off of Kevin Czuzcman and it beats Jarry to the post. 3-3.

Malkin making bad passes/losing the puck and then screaming out unintelligible noises of displeasure at himself (and possibly others!) is one of the biggest delights of the empty arena situation.

Marleau dekes right through Jack Johnson (lol) and is in all alone but Jarry bails out his defenseman. Nice move by Marleau, but jeez, that’s the Jack we know and do not love!

—Then at the other end Adam Johnson (hereby dubbed the good one) takes the puck away from Miletic and generates another scoring chance for himself but Murray gets his glove on the shot.

Marleau and Hornqvist work a give and go and Hornqvist’s shot gets by Jarry, but not the post as no goal is found there with the game getting late.

The game ends in a tie and the team moves on to some special teams work as scheduled.

—Top power play is as expected. Hornqvist joins Letang, Guentzel, Malkin and McCann. This group scores after a nice zone entry spaces out the penalty kill and Malkin makes a cross-ice pass for McCann. McCann wrists it with some traffic in front to the corner of Murray’s net.

John Marino and Justin Schultz are playing the points for the second power play group with Zucker, Sheary and Bryan Rust up front. They also score on their first shift, in a broken play, with Schultz ending up on the back post, finding a bouncing puck and slamming it home past Jarry on the other end of the ice.

—Both PKs hold for a few drills but then the second group scores a final goal. Marino puts a point shot in, Zucker and Rust crash to the net, Rust finds the puck and buries it past Jarry as a final shot. The team then groups together at center ice and gets their cool down stretching going.

Players and things who stood out for good reasons:

-Adam Johnson - Sam Lafferty - Anthony Angello line, lots of energy and just looked hungier than most. Not much to read into here, they’re just depth players who were motivated to play well against fellow depth players.

-Jason Zucker looked really good. Smart player, nice wheels, good hands, has the vision and ability to make plays. He’s just really well-rounded and seems to be able to do everything at a high level.

-Bouncing puck. Ice looked bad, lots of sloppy play created by an uncooperative puck that was a factor for everyone all game long. This wasn’t really a good reason, but deserved a mention.

Answering our questions

From before the scrimmage I had three questions/major points of interest. They were answered to various degrees:

#1: Captain sighting?

-Answer: no. Sidney Crosby did not participate. If this was next week’s exhibition game against Philadelphia, it would be Panic Levels 8/10. As of now, not much to get worked up about.

#2: All eyes on the usual

-Answer: ehh, not much to read into given the game. Very wide-open, heavy skating game. The players are starting to use sticks to block shot attempts, but overall a lot of the goals were the direct result of a defenseman messing up (Dumoulin allowing a pass to Angello, Jack Johnson being Jack Johnson, Ruhwedel coughing up the puck to Guentzel, etc). Jarry had the tough luck of going to play the puck only to watch it die about a foot before he could play it.

Other than that, both goalies were pretty good. Murray held his own against the top power play pretty well.

#3: First chance for the third line

-Answer: it was a good day. McCann was impactful. Hornqvist and Marleau were OK, Marleau isn’t always the prettiest or most noticeable in this environment and at his age, but then you look up and see he’s scored. Hornqvist, as expected, exhibited energy and enthusiasm back with the team. It was an encouraging first game for those guys, especially since they had to go head-to-head against Guentzel/Sheary for much of the night.

One more scrimmage on Saturday afternoon before the Pens leave for Toronto.