Checking in with some initial knee-jerk reactions from the Pittsburgh Penguins first three games of the 2022-23 season.
Overall, it has mostly been a success with five out of a possible six points, two blowout wins, and an overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The latter game was a tough loss, allowing a two-goal third period lead to slip away against a bad team, but there are still a lot of early season positives.
Some early thoughts and things that have stood out so far....
Evgeni Malkin looks great
He scored the Penguins’ only two goals in Monday’s loss in Montreal and already has three goals, four total points, and a team-high 17 shots on goal in the three games. He looks like a man on a mission so far and seems to be gelling with linemates Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker.
I have made this observation before, but most of his 5-on-5 struggles a year ago came from the fact his linemates simply could not finish. His even-strength goal-scoring remained as good as it has ever been, while his assist numbers were the area that plummeted. That speaks more to the linemates than anything involving him.
Rust and Zucker are a huge upgrade over Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen and as long as he stays healthy I think we are in for a great year from Malkin.
The shoot-first mentality is the most encouraging thing so far. If he keeps putting pucks on net, he is going to score a lot of goals.
The penalty kill has been an early weakness
This has been a big strength in at times over the past few years, but it is off to a slow start this season having already given up four goals in the three games. Overall, the unit is just 8-for-12 so far. I am not going to panic too much at this point because it is still early, but it has been one of the obvious flaws so far. And it is not necessarily a goaltending issue as they have given up a fair number of shots, scoring chances, and expected goals. The personnel and track record is there to believe this will get straightened out, but if you had to pinpoint one weakness so far, this is it.
Jeff Petry and Marcus Pettersson have been strong together
Petry had a rough night in his return to Montreal in the penalty department (that interference call in the third period was crap), but that pairing has been very productive through the first three games.
They have played more 5-on-5 minutes than any other pairing on the team, have started the overwhelming majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, and have still posted the best possession numbers on the team. When they have been on the ice the Penguins are attempting 55 percent of the total shot attempts, have 69 percent of the expected goals, 65 percent of the scoring chances, and 75 percent of the high-danger scoring chances. That is, again, with an overwhelming share of defensive zone starts. They are pushing the play in the right direction.
Petry was a significant addition this offseason and gives the Penguins a much-needed strong right side presence on the second defense pairing behind Kris Letang. Aside from the penalties on Monday, he has been exactly that and is giving them a great second defense pairing.
Jason Zucker has a great chance to bounce back
Zucker’s problem in Pittsburgh has mostly been injuries and inflated expectations. When healthy, I have really liked his game, and his production is not all that far off from what he was doing for most of his career in Minnesota.
He is not going to score 30 or 35 goals, but he is going to create his share of chances and if he can just get a little bit of a positive regression to the mean on his shooting he could still be a 20-25 goal scorer, especially on a line with Malkin and Bryan Rust. Early on, I have loved his game this season and he looks like he is on track for a nice redemption season. It was a smart move to not give up an asset to dump his contract this offseason. He can still help and his contract only has one year remaining on it anyway.
Some quick random thoughts and observations
— Brian Dumoulin did not look good on Montreal’s game-tying and game-winning goals on Monday, but the Kris Letang-Dumoulin pairing has a 14-1 high-danger scoring chance advantage and a 3-0 goals advantage through the first three games during 5-on-5 play.
— Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel look as good as they ever have.
— The fourth line is the weak link so far. They have not been bad by any means, but that is a definite area that could use an upgrade.
— The goaltending has been great. That is always the ultimate wild card, especially after the way the past couple of years have gone in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.