The Penguins kicked off their six game 2023-24 exhibition schedule on Sunday by knocking out two game in one day, against the same opponent. A group of Penguins met a team of Columbus Blue Jackets in Pittsburgh at 1 o’clock, and then another collection of players were on the road to meet some Jackets over in Columbus at 7pm.
In order to deal with these challenges of two games in a day, the coaching staff had to “divide and conquer” as Mike Sullivan put it. Pittsburgh assistant coach Mike Vellucci acted as the bench boss for the Pens on the matinee game, with Wilkes-Barre coaches J.D. Forrest and Kevin Porter serving as assistants, as did guest coach Kori Cheverie.
That left associate coach Todd Reirden to lead the group who went on the road, helped out by Pittsburgh assistant Ty Hennes and WBS assistant Sheldon Brookbank.
Sullivan would be at both games, watching from high above the ice with GM/President Kyle Dubas and assistant GM Jason Spezza.
Here’s the Pens’ lineup for the first game of the day, and season.
Lined up and ready for hockey. pic.twitter.com/gccYjCx4rM— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2023
To give an idea of the level of competition, here is the crew that Columbus brought to Pittsburgh - including some fairly decent NHL options.
Overall the game went about as expected, with the players at or near NHL level like Alex Nylander, P.O. Joseph, Radim Zohorna and Drew O’Connor shining in moments. Mark Friedman already instantly had members of the other team trying to kill him, even in the pre-season. Friedman would also suffer the first injury of the season, leaving the game after taking a puck to the face. After the game, Vellucci said the team is hoping and thinking Friedman will be mostly OK but won’t know for sure until tomorrow.
Nylander, in particular, stood out with a very strong afternoon that saw him score a goal during the game and add another in what would become a 3-2 shootout win for the Pens.
Gettin' things started here at PPG Paints Arena! pic.twitter.com/GX0p7hvVtW— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2023
It’s a crucial, make or break inflection point for Nylander at this point of his career. He knows it and is playing hard and trying to stand out.
“I just obviously want to do my best so I can stay here this season,” Nylander said. “I know I’ve had a really good summer and I feel confident on the ice, so just got to keep bringing it every day here and show that I belong on this team.”
Brayden Yager created a nice moment when he made the most of a chance to score in the shootout.
The future is bright in Pittsburgh.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2023
Coach Vellucci on Yager: "My impression is that he’s gotten better every day… For me, I love to see what he’s done at the rookie games… He just seems more comfortable every game." pic.twitter.com/CEXByPEx9d
On the road, the Pens faced a stiff challenge in the second game of the day. The host Blue Jackets rolled out some elite NHL players like Johnny Gaudreau and Zach Werenski, as well as the NHL exhibition debut of top pick Adam Fantilli.
Naturally enough, the Pens did not send nearly as talented a team out to travel to Ohio this early in the process, with Ty Smith, Jonathan Gruden and Sam Poulin being the only NHL players from Pittsburgh last year to play tonight, rounded out by AHL signings and veterans on pro tryouts.
Lines and pairings for tonight's matchup in Columbus ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/CnSRiYJyjT— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2023
As such, the Blue Jackets took a 4-3 overtime win. Gruden, Poulin and Austin Wagner scored the goals for Pittsburgh’s squad. Wagner’s goal was down right Crosby-esque with one hand on the stick and driving to the net with a backhanded flick that made it into the net.
This one-handed tally from Austin Wagner pic.twitter.com/SWf9fdSqaR— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 25, 2023
It was great to see Poulin build upon his strong early camp and the Prospects Challenge by scoring from in front. Many raved about how good the former first round pick has been playing so far this month as he makes his way back professionally from an extended personal leave of absence last season.
Poulin's perfect positioning pic.twitter.com/AFalHHfLei— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2023
All in all it was impressive showing for guys on the fringe of the roster over both games from players like Nylander, Poulin and Wagner looking to stand out in positive ways and try to get their names in the mix to make the club. That’s what the NHL pre-season is all about, outside of the top guys gearing up for the long marathon of the season to come. Sunday was the first game day on that journey.
The Pens have an off day on Monday, and then another game in Detroit on Tuesday. The team gets back to practicing on Wednesday, and likely will have a first round of cuts by then to just paring away some of the excess players currently in camp.