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Penguins/Sabres: what we learned from last night

Pittsburgh’s first win of the preseason was last night in Buffalo

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

In the preseason, it really doesn’t matter if a hockey team wins or loses, but the Penguins did win 2-1 last night in Buffalo. More important than the game result is what the individual players showed (or maybe, didn’t show) as an indicator for the future.

So what were the important lessons learned from last night’s second preseason game for the Pens?

Give the Dominik his due. Dominik Simon is a player who is good at keeping the puck for his team. Bad at scoring points. He does little things but can be a frustrating player for his inability to finish chances and not cash in on the fruits of his labor (yeah, yeah, rate stats are fun but he’s got 19 career goals in 184 games). Simon was able to score tonight, with a smart backhand shot.

It’s only preseason, but it’s important for Simon to show signs of life and production. He did last night, and that’s an encouraging sign as his return to Pittsburgh gets off to a solid start in the goal column.

DeSmith picks up where he left off. Casey DeSmith wasn’t drafted. He’s generously listed at 6’0”, and in this day and age there aren’t too many NHL goalies with his stature. But all he does almost every time he gets the opportunity to play is impress and do his job. DeSmith started the game and stopped all 11 shots he saw in the 30:30 that he played. Can’t ask for any more, like pretty much he usually does. Yeah, it’s only preseason and it’s only Buffalo at that. But coming off an offseason surgery, it’s always important to see what kind of form a goaltender is in. DeSmith looks like he’s ready to go. With an unknown (at best) situation with Tristan Jarry’s game, having a solid second goalie option is a must. DeSmith made a statement tonight that he’s as reliable as he always is. That’s a good sign.

“I think the way this league has evolved, most teams require two goaltenders,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the game. “There aren’t too many teams that have one goalie who goes wire to wire anymore. Casey’s played a lot of important games for us in the time we’ve had him as a Pittsburgh Penguin. He was a big part of the regular season last year when he was healthy, and that tandem was effective for us. To have two that are performing well I think is critical to a team’s ability to have success in this league.”

O’Connor stepping up. I think one of the biggest differences in opinion between general fan and coaches/decision makers in the Penguins’ organization is Drew O’Connor. Fans saw a guy who had no goals and one assist in 10 NHL games last season, who barely stood out or was noticeable most of the time for any reason, and perhaps understandably are pretty “meh” on the forward. The organization feels a lot differently.

O’Connor is skating with “Team 1” in practice lately, which is the going to include most of the future NHL team in a few weeks. This might be aided by Zach Aston-Reese being on the shelf for the moment, but it’s an opportunity for the youngster. O’Connor scored 19 points in 20 AHL games last year. He’s 6’3 and can really move on the ice. He didn’t have any points tonight, but did win 10 of 14 faceoffs. The Penguins need centers. O’Connor isn’t a proven full-time center, but a performance like this ought to open the door to want to see more.

It’s a win that unlike most of last season in the NHL, O’Connor stood out in this game in a positive way. Does he build on it to hop over names like Lafferty, Angello, Zohorna in that type of range to be the 12/13th forward? Stay tuned..

Testing the youngsters. Mike Sullivan mentioned “conditioning” and “pace” levels about Radim Zohorna last week, in a note that stood out. Zohorna got 20 minutes tonight, winning 50% of his faceoffs and playing pretty well, especially considering he missed a practice with an illness (non-COVID) earlier in the week. This next week is a very big audition for Zohorna and what he may or may not be able to offer.

Similarly, Sam Poulin hasn’t had the best camp, but he played 21:17 last night (only NHL mainstays in Marcus Pettersson and Kasperi Kapanen had more ice time). This is an encouraging route to take, the Pens are giving their 2019 first round pick every opportunity to have a long look.

Nathan Legare played less minutes, but has dressed for both preseason games to date and fired a team-high five shots on goal.

The exhibition time, especially early on still like it is now, is where a team wants to test and see what the up and comers have to offer. To an extent the team has to be pleased with what they saw tonight.

Overall, it’s a pretty quick turnaround to a Sunday afternoon home game against Detroit for the next preseason game. Being at home, we could see more NHL-caliber talent look to get into a game and start getting to work. The calendar has flipped to October, and now it’s a matter of time until the preseason continues to ramp up as the team prepares for the regular season to come.