It is the end of July and there is an actual hockey game on TV today.
For the first time since mid-March, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be playing a game on Tuesday afternoon when they take on their cross-state rivals — the Philadelphia Flyers — from the Eastern Conference Bubble in Toronto.
Hockey. In July. In a bubble. All of that remains weird.
This will be the Penguins one tune-up game before they begin their play-in round series against the Montreal Canadiens.
Here are a few things we will be watching for on Tuesday afternoon.
Will Sidney Crosby play?
The Penguins’ captain was a full participant in practice on Monday but coach Mike Sullivan would not commit to Crosby’s status for Tuesday’s scrimmage. He had previously missed time in training camp leading up to the Penguins’ departure for the bubble. He previously missed 28 games during the regular season after undergoing sports hernia surgery. When he was on the ice he had 47 points in 41 games. Does he need the exhibition game? Probably not. But you have to think he might like to have to a warm-up game under his belt before the playoffs begin. He also probably never wants to miss a chance for a big game against the Flyers, no matter what the stakes are.
Perhaps the most anticipated part of the season restart from a Penguins perspective is the return of Guentzel, the team’s top winger.
He has not played in a game since the end of December.
Before he was sidelined with a shoulder injury he had already scored 20 goals in 39 games and was on track for his second consecutive 40-goal season. Getting him back in the lineup is going to be a huge addition for the Penguins, and when combined with the arrival of Jason Zucker gives the Penguins some serious impact talent at wing on each of their top two lines.
That third line
We talked about this a little this past week, but one of the biggest X-factors for the Penguins in the restart is going to be the play of this makeshift third line of Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, and Patric Hornqvist. All three players are good. All three players are useful. But we have no idea how they will look together as a unit. If it clicks, it could be a huge difference-maker. If it does not, it leaves a pretty big void in the lineup and is going to require a lot of shuffling on the other lines.
Speaking of X-factors. This is obviously THE X-factor. If Matt Murray and/or Tristan Jarry play well, this is a potential championship team. If they do not, well, the Penguins could find themselves in Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery. We still do not have an official word on who starts Game 1 against Montreal, but general manager Jim Rutherford has said he expects that it will be Murray. We know what has been said and written about the performance of the goalies in the training camp scrimmages, but those are just scrimmages after a four-month layoff. I want to see what these guys do in an actual game, with some work already under their belts, against a different opponent.
The power play
Probably the the most maddening part of the 2019-20 Penguins — aside from the seemingly never-ending run of injuries — was the inconsistent performance of the power play. In terms of its overall success rate, it was middle of the pack, checking in at just under 20 percent and sitting 16th in the league. But man did it really look bad at times. It is not a question of talent. Between Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist, Jason Zucker, and Justin Schultz there should be more than enough talent for this unit to always click. It is just a matter of the execution being there.
The continuing dominance of Evgeni Malkin
Speaking personally, this might be the thing I am most excited about. Malkin has been a man on a mission all season and by all accounts has continued that level of dominance throughout training camp. That line of Malkin, Zucker, and Bryan Rust has the potential to be one hell of a second line and a force for opposing teams to try and slow down.
How will everyone look after the extended layoff?
The good news for the Penguins is that they are mostly healthy for the first time all season (Dominik Simon and Nick Bjugstad being the execptions) and will actually have the lineup they want to have on the ice. The trade deadline acquisitions are in place, Guentzel is back, Crosby looks ready, and the top-four on defense is in place with a healthy Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Marcus Pettersson. Having said that, it has still been four months (more than a normal offseason) since the this team has actually played a real hockey game. There is going to be some rust. Will this one exhibition game be enough to shake it all off and get them ready for Montreal? We will see.