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Game Recap: Penguins make statement in strong season opener, down Lightning 6-2

The under-manned Penguins put on a tremendous 60 minute effort and grab a big 6-2 win in Tampa against the defending champs

Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Pregame

The Penguins open up the season with a lineup that isn’t very strong with all of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel on the sidelines. With Mike Matheson as a game-day scratch dealing with a nagging lower-body injury, Marcus Pettersson bumps up a pair and Mark Friedman gets the opportunity to play.

First period

It’s a quiet first period, which is a good start for the visitors on banner raising night for the homestanding opponent. The Lightning look mostly sleepy, and the Penguins win the shot battle 14-7, 64% of the faceoffs and generally get the better of the play.

Dominik Simon gets the first great scoring chance of the season on a pass from Friedman on a 2-on-1 but Andrei Vasilevskiy makes the save. A bit later Evan Rodrigues got a clean breakaway, but then lost the puck on a deke and didn’t record a shot on goal.

Jason Zucker was stung in the leg with a shot block and limped off the bench, but fortunately was back on the ice.

No power plays, no penalties, the Pens’ structure without the puck looked really good clamping down in their own end. Marcus Pettersson’s subtle positional play was in full effect.

Tristan Jarry didn’t have to do a lot, seeing mostly outside shots, but played just fine when called upon. Not the most exciting opening 20 minutes of hockey, but given this lineup, the situation and the opponent, that’s a good enough start for Pittsburgh to go into the first intermission with a 0-0 score and shrink the game to 40 minutes.

Second period

Just 12 seconds into the period, the Pens strike for the first goal of the season. Pittsburgh dumps the puck in and Vasilevskiy goes behind the net to play it. His clearing attempt is knocked down by Jeff Carter, who quickly centers the puck for Danton Heinen. Heinen has an easy one as Vasilievskiy can’t recover and get back in position in time. 1-0 Pens!

A few minutes later, the Pens’ fourth line gets into the action. Drew O’Connor starts the rush and gets the puck to Sam Lafferty on the right side. Lafferty sauces a really nice pass for Brian Boyle who has space. Boyle quickly shoots for the five-hole of Vasy, and he finds it. 2-0 visitors with 15:49 remaining.

The Pens are buzzin’ at this point and jumping up in the play and really opening it up on what still looks like a sleep-walking Tampa team. The momentum is broken when Heinen takes a tripping penalty, but the Pittsburgh PK passes their first test of the season.

With 3:50 left in the period, the Pens get their first power play of the season when Tampa gets busted for having too many players on the ice.

Shots on goal in the second were 11-8 Pens, and through 40 minutes overall 25-15 in favor of Pittsburgh. Here’s a snazzy chart from @BryanBastin illustrating a lot of positive process-based stuff going on for the Pens through 40 minutes.

Third period

A quick moving third period, good for the road team carrying the lead when the first TV timeout on the next non-icing whistle doesn’t happen until 8 minutes left in the game. And before that can happen, the Pens strike again. Dominik Simon just throws a puck on the net, it hits some traffic in front and ends up eluding Vasilievskiy, who never seemed able to track it. 3-0 Pittsburgh.

With six whole minutes left and an offensive-zone faceoff, Tampa pulls the goalie to look for some sign of life down by three. Bold strategy, but there’s no reason not to try. And it pays off. The Lightning score with 5:37 left off a faceoff. Victor Hedman tosses the puck to the net and Anthony Cirelli deflects the puck in the slot and the change of direction foils Jarry. 3-1 Pens lead but Tampa is on the board.

Tampa again pulls the goalie but it doesn’t pay off, Teddy Blueger gets the puck, skates it up the ice and deposits the puck into the open net. Lead back to three goals at 4-1 with 5:07 left.

Tampa’s in full YOLO mode, pulling the goalie again, and it pays off with another 6v5 goal. Steven Stamkos dishes a nice pass for Alex Killorn who snaps the puck in to make it 4-2 with 3:08 left.

The Pens snag another 5v6 ENG when Evan Rodrigues hacks at a puck from long distance that trickles on it. 5-2 and it’s getting silly now.

Target practice continues for the Pens with Bryan Rust scoring from behind the red line for an empty netter with 1:49 left to make the score 6-2.

Some thoughts

  • The veteran Carter had an A on his jersey to join Letang and Brian Dumoulin as alternate captains as the on-ice leadership with the injuries to Crosby and Malkin.
  • Danton Heinen becomes the answer to a very obscure trivia question of “which player scored the first goal of the 2021-22 NHL season and first goal in the NHL back on ESPN”. If you’re playing in this trivia game, good luck!
  • Heinen would also be the answer to the question of “which player scored took the first penalty of the 2021-22 NHL season and with the NHL back on ESPN”.
  • Speaking of that penalty, it was called on a play where a Lightning player went offside, another brought the puck in the zone and was tripped as he was offside. Kinda weird that is a trip when technically the play was over, but that’s kinda what happens when the home team is down 2-0 in the second in the NHL..
  • This is Heinen-centric thoughts today, but is he about to slide into the “looks good playing with Jeff Carter” Jared McCann spot? It’s way early, but so far so good. If the Pens ever get healthy (that’s an IF not a when), this could be the start of finding that third line..
  • Along those lines, it’s been a huge talking point and season storyline for the Pens about getting more out of Pettersson and John Marino. Both played very strongly together tonight, supporting the play on offense and being responsible in their own end.
  • Four shots on goal for Zucker, no one on the Pens had more. Zucker had a few nice chances setup by Kasperi Kapanen and true to preseason promise, was quick to get the puck on net. An encouraging sign.
  • Sloppy night for Tampa, looked like they weren’t really expecting much from the Pens and they just couldn’t get much going on the first night out. To Pittsburgh’s credit, their defense was layered and perfect to deny the slot, they didn’t give up a ton on the rush, just a strong effort.
  • Game got a bit silly at the end with the empty net, the two goals the Pens gave up were both 5v6 goals, which is a nice sign at least to not concede a goal during the normal course of play in the first 54 minutes before Tampa kept lifting the goalie.

It’s only the start and just one out of 82 games, but it really couldn’t have been a better start for the Pens. On the road, against the defending two-time champs, Pittsburgh put on a much better effort and chipped away for a convincing win.

For a team many hoped would just stay above water until the impending returns of Crosby and Guentzel, the Pens proved to everyone (and perhaps most importantly to themselves) that there’s no reason they can’t hang with anyone in any game.

Thoughts on the game? The ESPN broadcast? Where you will stake your spot for the parade? Let’s hear it on a Pittsburgh Penguin winning opening night!