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Pens/Sabres Impressions: Punchy Pens get the power play producing in final tuneup

Sid fights, the power play wakes up and Drew O’Connor shows out during Pittsburgh’s final exhibition game against Buffalo

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

Preseason games in the NHL these days are usually very vanilla. Most players, especially in the final tune-up like tonight, are taking the warmup for what will be a six-month regular season marathon ahead. Tonight’s Penguins/Sabres game had plenty of fireworks. Seven goals for Pittsburgh, two from the already much-maligned power play. And Sidney Crosby got into a fight. Well, kinda.

After Kris Letang took a couple of bumps behind the net, the Pens’ captain circled back and showed that wasn’t going to be tolerated. I guess you can call that a fight, but the messaging behind it meant miles more.

For a final tuneup, the Penguins showed they are ready to embark on the long season. Mike Sullivan was asked coming into the game what he wanted to see from the power play and quipped, “a goal would be really good.” The top guns did one better and put two on the board with the man-advantage, which represented the big boy’s first PPG in three exhibition games that they’ve played.

They were pretty much best case scenario to build confidence and move forward too. Erik Karlsson found time and space in the second period and made a sublime hard pass down for Evgeni Malkin to re-direct into the net.

The Pens put one more PPG on the board late in the game. Crosby made a Crosby centering pass and Kris Letang showcased some of his newly positioned freedom down towards the net to snap what could be the first of many goals from a new area.

While there was a lot more going on, the power play showing some life and finding the back of the net is something to build on and take forward for the season.

Some more thoughts:

  • Alex Nylander started the preseason in the top-six but didn’t last very long. Radim Zohorna got the next chance, but was a healthy scratch tonight and also seemed to sputter as time went on. Those outcomes led to a last minute placement of Drew O’Connor going up to the spot, and paid huge dividends and looks like the answer the team was searching for all along. O’Connor was sprung on a breakaway in the opening seconds of the game by Crosby and finished with authority. If that wasn’t enough, in the third O’Connor took a routine looking rush up the wing to the net and scored again on his backhand.
  • Sullivan was a fan of O’Connor’s night, as you might guess. “I thought he played well,” the coach said. “Obviously, he scored a couple of goals. But more than that, I think he was on pucks. He used his speed, he used his size, I thought he was a solid defensively. There were a few areas where just little details on faceoffs and things of that nature, I think we can help him improve. But overall, I thought he played a real strong game.”
  • Sullivan would go onto say about O’Connor, “I think he’s got a much better understanding of how he has to play in order to set himself up for success. He’s playing to his strengths.” Sounds like the Pens have found an answer, if not for the temporary Jake Guentzel replacement than for at least what is setting up to be a potential ascending type of year from the youngster at some level.
  • The other battles to be found came on the lower lines. Sullivan had much good to say about a player he’s getting to know in the recently claimed Jansen Harkins. While also mentioning Harkins used his speed to negate some icings, Sullivan offered, “I thought he had another really strong game. He’s made an impression on us in the short time he’s been here. We’re trying to get to learn his game a little bit more intimately than we know it. But as I said to you guys before, the people in our hockey operations department – Kyle (Dubas) included – think very highly of Jansen, and I see why.”
  • Then again, Sullivan also said “time well tell” about the upcoming decisions about what happens next with Harkins. One thing is for sure, Harkins did nothing in his brief opportunity to show he shouldn’t be a part of the Pens’ NHL roster to start the season. With very limited spots to choose between players him, Zohorna, Colin White and Austin Wagner, the rubber is going to meet the road at some point coming very soon.
  • Decisions could change, and watch the waiver wire on Saturday or Sunday but what does the impressions say? Think Option B from what was written on Pensburgh yesterday: O’Connor stays in the top six until Guentzel comes back. Sign Wagner, keep Harkins, waive Zohorna. The team could obviously opt to go in a different direction, but based on the last few days that outlook seems as good as any, without being in the room where the calls are made.

The final words of the last preseason game goes to the captain.

“I think we’ve improved as the preseason’s gone on,” Crosby said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces, and it’s not easy for guys when they come to a new team and adjust and things like that. So, I think they’ve done a really good job of paying attention to details. I think as a group, we’ve come a long way since the first day of camp. It’s a process, so we’ll just try to continue to get better.”

The end of the preseason is only the beginning of the real season, after all. After tonight’s 7-4 win that showed a capable performance from O’Connor and some signs of life from the power play, the Pens can look to jump off from the real starting point next week with a little more proof of concept than they had before tonight began.