It’s the first game in 2022 and the first game in two weeks for the Penguins, who interestingly enough open up on a NFL Sunday at 1pm which is weird, but whatever. (No time conflict with the Steelers).
It’s a very different lineup too, with four new forwards from last game (Guentzel, Rust, Bjorkqvist, Zohorna in; Zucker, Kapanen, Blueger, Carter out). For Kasper Bjorkqvist, it’s his NHL debut in his draft+6 season.
The Penguins scored early, late and in between as they rung up a 6-1 lead in the first period. Who could have been sure what to expect for a day game with a two week layoff, but the Pens were ready to play. It was also the first game East for San Jose, who came out looking like their bodies were on a 10:00am Pacific zone body internal clock..
Evan Rodrigues started the scoring just 1:03 in, and why wouldn’t he? 2021’s most pleasant surprise for the Pens didn’t turn into a pumpkin in 2022 (even after a bout with COVID) which is really nice to see. Nice job by Rodrigues to curl and drag to the middle and release a great shot, but no idea what either Shark player in the picture is thinking about accomplishing here.
Okay, we love 2022 already. pic.twitter.com/3Vie695jfx— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 2, 2022
Just 2:09 later, Jake Guentzel gets back into the lineup by picking up right where he left off and scoring a goal on a bit of a broken play where Bryan Rust’s centering pass ends up all the way over on the wing and Guentzel quickly snaps it to the net before anyone realizes what has happened it’s 2-0.
Just 59 seconds, it’s Rodrigues again scoring, because why he is the best hockey player of all-time all of a sudden. Maybe. Great job by Danton Heinen to carry the puck as far as possible, which ends up being quite deep into the zone, as again the San Jose defense is just kinda there. But no Sharks pick up Rodrigues, which is a big problem. He cuts in to his backhand and flips is past a helpless James Reimer to really bust the game open at 3-0 just 4:11 into the game.
Oh, just Evan Rodrigues casually scoring two goals less than five minutes into the game. pic.twitter.com/gwjdlCVEon— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 2, 2022
San Jose coach Bob Boughner burns his timeout to try and stop the momentum. It...doesn’t work. The Pens don’t let up and score a fourth goal before even the first TV timeout. This time it’s Rust’s turn to reintroduce himself back into the lineup with a goal. Pittsburgh gets some puck luck (when you’re hot, you’re hot, Jerry Reed taught us this) — a Kris Letang point shot clicks off a Shark and bounces right to Rust. Reimer is pinned deep in his crease, not expecting the danger to now be coming from the slot. Rust snaps a forehand shot quickly past Reimer, it’s 4-0 and the floodgates are well past open.
ALL RUST.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 2, 2022
...and ZERO rust. pic.twitter.com/GZzn7IbVO7
The Sharks get settled down and get on the board though, with a bit of good fortune of their own when Timo Meier’s incoming effort bounces to Alexander Barabanov in front, and he’s able to touch it down, and slide the puck past Casey DeSmith. 4-1.
Alexander Barabanov nets his fifth of the season. pic.twitter.com/DxH5EvJQhh— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) January 2, 2022
The Pens get an answer less than a minute later, and it’s a first goal in the first game for Kasper Bjorkqvist! Radim Zohorna makes a nice pass from behind the net and Bjorkqvist gets to the net, and all he has to do is tap the puck through Reimer and it’s 5-1. Making it look easy in game number 1!
And just before the period ends with 28 seconds left, Rust gets his second goal of the game to make it a six spot for the Pens. Pittsburgh is just having fun, moving the puck all around the ice and Rust glides back to the point, takes a pass from John Marino and fires away. It’s tough for Reimer with a SJ defender getting a piece but in essence putting a deflection on net. 6-1 Pens.
Shots end up 17-10 Pittsburgh, with that SJ total being a bit misleading. It certainly was not James Reimer’s day, some bad luck and poor defense not of his making, but he could not keep the puck in front of him today.
San Jose mercifully pulls the plug on Reimer, but their backup is a goalie in Zach Sawchenko. The undrafted 24-year old had previous no NHL experience, and almost as many career ECHL games as AHL games. At the time it seemed like just a desperation move, with literally nothing left to lose or even play for in a game so far away.
SJ hung around in the second, scoring the period’s only goal. Dominik Simon went to the penalty box for hooking and Brent Burns made the Pens pay with a rare PK goal against with his heavy shot from the point.
Pittsburgh hit the post three times in the period, but Sawchenko, against all odds and likelihood, stopped all eight shots on target in a good period.
Just 20 seconds in, the Sharks struck again to claw back to 6-3 and start to have a little bit of belief after a crazy bounce and just some terrible goaltending from DeSmith. Matt Nieto shoots way wide, the puck takes a weird hop off the end wall, and somehow DeSmith bungles it and knocks it into his own net. Yikes.
How the third period started pic.twitter.com/Fw3cRE8cmb— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) January 2, 2022
Quickly it’s a 6-4 game as San Jose draws closer. Erik Karlsson takes a big point shot and it appears a Shark tips it in front. Plenty of time left and momentum is clearly in SJ’s favor as the bounces have started going their way, and it’s now the Pens who are the ones that can’t get a stop to save their proverbial lives.
Just a little after a minute later, the Sharks strike again as the comeback attempt reaches full throat. A defensive breakdown leaves Logan Couture unmarked and all alone in front of the net, and you really expecting DeSmith to keep shots on goal out when he’s not keeping out shots not even on goal? Oy, 6-5 Pens clinging for dear life.
The high-water mark for the Sharks might have come there, or it might have been later when Simon went back to the penalty box for the second time this game, this time on a hook of Karlsson in the offensive zone.
But unfortunately for them, Couture (who just scored) took down Brock McGinn inexplicably to end the SJ power play. From there the Pens would hold on, and their relentless pursuit of Sawchenko would finally pay off. After stopping the first 19 shots he saw, Pittsburgh finally scored on the first time NHLer with who else but Rodrigues notching his first career NHL hat trick to push the lead to 7-5 with 2:01 left and finally make this game feel like it is out of reach again.
As Run-D.M.C. would say, "It's tricky. Tricky, tricky, tricky." pic.twitter.com/k3PQuDKMAb— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 2, 2022
Then Rust would match Rodrigues in the 2022 hat trick club with an empty net goal to seal the game at 8-5.
- With a depleted roster, the Pens were going to need their heavy hitters (aka: top line, Rodrigues, Letang) to come through, and all of the above did with multi-point games, and of course hat tricks in the cases of Rust and Rodrigues. Huge performances.
- Especially for Rust and Rodrigues, coming off an injury and COVID respectively, you never really know what to expect in a first game back after a long time. Didn’t matter that much, as it turned out. Tremendous stuff. Rust almost doubled his goal output on the season from three to five and had a five point game. Rodrigues just continues to excel, they were very impressive.
- Almost lost in the shuffle of those insanely bright performances, was the star that is Jake Guentzel getting back in a game for the first time in a month and extending his own point-scoring streak to 17 and notching a 13th goal in his last 13 games. He’s producing in spades and so consistently as well.
- Almost all of those early goals came with breakouts/transitions and the Sharks looking lost and the Pens making great plays. As mentioned way above, I really do think the 10am local time for the Sharks’ bodies probably had something to do with their incredibly sluggish start. They literally looked half asleep out there, and for good reason.
- Sawchenko entered with nothing to lose in his first NHL game, and while the Pens kinda did that annoying thing where they make an anonymous backup look like a star, you still gotta give the kid some credit. It really seems like in that situation a goalie can play loose and you can see them gain confidence and momentum as they keep making saves (and especially when their posts are bailing them out too). And you could see that grow today, until Rodrigues finally beat Sawchenko to salt the game away.
- With Tristan Jarry experiencing minor symptoms with his COVID case, the Pens may need Casey DeSmith for most of the next week. And, uhh, it’s wasn’t very encouraging today. There were probably some score effects and some lax defense in front of him, but DeSmith looked allergic to the pucks at time. That third goal early in the third period was a huge momentum shift and one of the absolute worst goals you will ever see at the NHL level. That’s inexcusable and he’s got to be better. Tough to get away with 22/27 goaltending on most days, but hopefully they can flush this and tighten up for next time.
- Zach Aston-Reese with a career-high five SOG today, which is a good sign. He nearly scored on a quick developing breakaway where his backhand shot was a couple inches from elevating over the leg pad of Sawchenko.
- Dominik Simon went to the box for both Pens’ penalties in this one. But he also drew a penalty late that resulted in Rodrigues’ power play goal. Win some, lose some, but not the greatest of trades for two against to one for.
- It was great to see the 24-year old Bjorkqvist finally open the account for the 2016 Pens’ draft picks in the NHL with a debut and him getting on the board with a goal. He’s probably not long for the NHL when/if some of the forward bodies get back, but it’s nice to see the organizational depth where they can rely on about their 17/18th best forward to get in the game and make a positive impact.
The Pens were surely a little sloppier than they would have liked to be, but scoring six first period goals also builds enough of a cushion to practically do whatever a team want in the next 40 minutes and still get out of town with the win. Now the Pens will see what the COVID list brings or takes in the next few days as they have one more home game on Wednesday before a long road trip.