It is not a total shock that the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to open the 2021-22 regular season with a win on Tuesday night.
Sure, they were playing without their top three forwards in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel, not to mention Zach Aston-Reese and defenseman Mike Matheson.
Yeah, they were on the road against the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a roster whose game night roster looked wildly more impressive than the one the Penguins were using.
But they have won games without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup before. Not a stretch to think they could piece together a strong enough 60-minute effort to get two points in the standings.
What was a bit of a shock is how the Penguins won this game.
It was not a game they had to scratch and claw their way through. It was not a game where they needed 3-on-3 overtime or a shootout. Definitely not a game where they needed some lucky breaks or an otherwordly goaltending performance to steal two points.
It was a game that they completely and totally dominated from the very beginning. They did not just win, had completely and total control of the game for almost the entire 60 minutes. It was apparent even in the first period that the Penguins were playing a strong game.
The underlying numbers at 5-on-5 are as one-sided as an NHL game can get.
The Penguins doubled the Lightning in scoring chances (34-18), had nearly all of the high-danger changes (12-4; Tampa Bay had zero high-danger chances at 5-on-5 during the first and third periods), and had a commanding lead in total shot attempts (54-47) and expected goals (2.40 to 1.18).
The team level performance was amazing.
Let us take a quick look at some of the individual performances that stood out.
Tristan Jarry. Let us start here, because this was the big question mark coming into the season, especially after the Stanley Cup Playoff performance. The Penguins did not need him to steal the game on Tuesday, but he played about as good as could have been expected in getting the win. He did not give up a goal until late in the third period when the result was already pretty much in hand while both Tampa Bay goals were scored during 6-on-5 situations. This is going to be a big year for Jarry in Pittsburgh, perhaps even a make-or-break season when it comes to his long-term outlook with the team, and this had to be a big confidence boost for the goalie. He was great.
The Jeff Carter line. Carter is going to be a huge X-factor for the Penguins this season in both the short-and long-term. Short-term they need him to be the top center as long as Crosby and Malkin are injured. Long-term he can be an impact player as a depth center that runs the third line like he did a year ago when everybody is in the lineup. Carter spent Tuesday playing on a line with Danton Heinen and Bryan Rust, a trio that played by far the most minutes of any other line on the team. They played more than 15 minutes during 5-on-5 play and controlled play all night, while also getting the offense rolling early in the second period with Carter forcing a turnover and setting up Heinen for an open-net goal.
The fourth line. This would be Drew O’Connor, Brian Boyle, and Sam Lafferty. I had no expectations for this line, including Boyle, but they did everything you could have hoped for. Boyle scored a goal in his Penguins debut (a beauty of a goal) while Lafferty and O’Connor posted some of the best possession numbers of any players on the team while getting almost exclusively defensive zone starts. They pushed play and tilted the ice in their favor. I am not going to jump to too many conclusions here (remember Mark Jankowski’s first couple of games a year ago?) but it is still a big start for this group when it is needed.
Mark Friedman. With Cody Ceci now in Edmonton and Matheson out of the lineup on Tuesday it provided Friedman with an opportunity to get some playing time. He made the most of it. Did not notice any glaring mistakes, posted strong underlying numbers, and had an incredible scoring chance where he deked around a Tampa Bay defender and worked his way in alone for a wide open shot on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Did not result in a goal, but was an impressive play and a nice glimpse into what he is capable of doing on the ice.
Kris Letang. The star player that was in the lineup for the Penguins on Tuesday night played like a star. Nobody played more minutes, and Letang was dominant in those minutes. The Penguins outscored Tampa Bay 2-0 during his 5-on-5 minutes, he assisted on both goals, while they generated more scoring chances and expected goals during his minutes than any other player on the team. Letang ppv also did that while playing most of the game against Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Mikhail Sergachev (his four most common opponents on Tuesday night). Great stuff.
Marcus Pettersson. Not really a dominant statistical performance but he had a couple of big shot blocks in the first period to negate Tampa Bay chances and played a rock solid game alongside John Marino. This is what the Penguins need from that duo all season.
Dominik Simon. Just because he is the most polarizing player on the team and I want to get a head start on the Dominik Simon bandwagon again. His goal was obviously a little bit of a fluke and a fortunate bounce, but I thought in general he did what Dominik Simon always does — played a smart game, created chances, and made positive things happen on most every shift. Strong game.
Danton Heinen. Mentioned him briefly in the Carter line section but thought Heinen deserved some individual attention as well. He had four shots on goal, four individual scoring chances, a goal, and just seemed to play a solid game. Not really sure what to expect from him this season. Couple of years ago he looked like a 40-50 point player in Boston with strong underlying possession numbers, got traded during the 2019-20 season for Nick Ritchie, bought saw his point numbers drop a bit in Anaheim. Not surprisingly given the lack of talent around him there. An intriguing player, though, given the cheap price tag this season.