The Vancouver Canucks were an interesting matchup for the Penguins to open up the season. Although the Penguins fell short in their efforts to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals last season, a strong showing against a Canuck team that took Boston to seven games goes a long way to boost spirits. And the Penguins certainly took advantage of the opportunity...
Overall Grade: A-
Home openers are tough, especially when you're the Stanley Cup runner-up. Vancouver came out flat and Pittsburgh jumped on the forecheck early, drawing an early man advantage and capitalizing. The Pens didn't really relent until the third when Vancouver, anchored by the Sedins, showed why the are such a dangerous team off the rush. The first two periods belonged to Pittsburgh, the final frame to Vancouver, OT was a draw, and the Pens had the better of the shootout. Talent-wise, you would have to give an edge to the Canucks, but the Pens came out strong in and carried their first period lead to the shootout.
The Difference: Goaltending
Reggie Jackson's nickname is certainly safe: Roberto Luongo is no "Mr. October." James Neal's PP goal early in the first was a mental mistake by Luongo: Luongo failed to guard the short side post and tried to cheat against the pass. Neal's harmless cross-crease feed was directed into the net by Luongo as he flailed to regain position. The two goals by Matt Cooke were hardly Luongo's fault, but he gave up back-to-back goals to Letang and Malkin in the shootout that sealed his fate. Letang made a great move to the backhand to beat him, but Malkin simply waited out the over-aggressive Luongo as he lay prone on the ice, a victim of a missed poke-check.
On the other end of the ice, Marc Andre Fleury overcame a shaky start to put in a very strong outing. Fleury's mental mistake early left him out of position (eerily similar to the goal Luongo let to Neal), and almost ceded a second were it not for a dazzling display of leather (and, it had to be said, the inconclusive video review). The glove save seemed to re-focus Fleury, and he turned in a very sound performance for the remainder of the game. Fleury saw the puck well all night. He showed patience, good positioning, and great rebound control. And, in the third and OT, when the Pens were clearly fatigued, Fleury kept them in the game. In the shootout, a great glove save on Samuelson's backhand was all it took to secure the victory.
Sidney Crosby's absence gave Evgeni Malkin the full attention of Vancouver's top line, which did frustrate him at times. Geno tried often to dance through the Vancouver gauntlet using finesse, but Vancouver was too disciplined at taking the time and space from Malkin to allow fancy parlor tricks. It was only when Geno simplified his game and used his body that he started to get the better of the Canucks. Still, Malkin did manage to open the ice up for his linemates: Kunitz, Neal, and Sullivan all benefited.
Neal managed to double his point production as a Penguin while surely adding Roberto Luongo to his Christmas card list. Funny what a little confidence will do, as Neal played the rest of the game with a smile... and an aggressive edge. He did his best impersonation of a bulldozer while tearing through the Vancouver defensive. He didn't get very many scoring chances, but he did give Vancouver plenty of fits just trying to control him.
Tyler Kennedy, anxious to prove he is a legitimate top-six forward, also was a good offensive force. He had a number of good shots (one PP chance that blew by Luongo only to be saved by red steel) and forechecked effectively. Kennedy seems to work best with others who can cycle the puck down low and feed him in the slot: I'd really like to see if he and Crosby can generate some magic together once Sid returns. Jordan Staal, though he had a few good shots, is still programmed for defense first and is just not a good compliment to Kennedy at this stage.
Kunitz and Sullivan both had strong outings. Kunitz with some strong play on the puck and some solid passing sequences with Neal. While Sullivan proved he's still got great wheels and is a right handful when he's skating with the puck. His timing with his linemates is just a bit off, but he showed good creativity and plenty of reason to keep an eye on him going forward.
This is perhaps a bit unfair. The M&M line of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin played well enough and were effective in neutralizing Vancouver's threat through two frames; however, the second pairing needs some work. Kris Letang was positioned on his weak side off-wing, and was clearly still adjusting to the change. As such, I have to question the logic of pairing him with Deryk Engelland. Granted, in the absence of Brooks Orpik, Engelland is clearly the most physically punishing of the defenders remaining, but he is still not sound enough in his own end. Engelland doesn't have the skating ability to keep up with most off the rush and his positioning is still a work in progress. Letang didn't have exceptional chemistry with Engelland, so the pairing did little to exude much confidence. To his credit, Letang shouldered a lion's share of the defensive and offensive burden between the two and did quite well, but there were times when the tandem was simply exposed. I'd strongly suspect Ben Lovejoy would provide a much better compliment to Letang than Engelland.
Relentless Award: Matt Cooke
It's only one game, but you can't help but commend Cookie. Vancouver has some pretty good agitators and, for sure, some pretty good punks that tried to get under Cook's skin. For his part, Cook stayed above the noise and let his play speak volumes. And for one night, Matt Cooke looked like the third Sedin brother. His two goals were pure sniper. The first on a quick one-timer redirected to the top corner on Luongo on a behind-the-net feed from Pascal Dupuis showed tremendous hand-eye coordination. The second goal, short-handed, using the defender as a screen and finding the top corner again proved the first was no aberration. Cooke has a long road ahead of him and he's got a lot of people watching him very closely. It's not going to be easy for him to put the past behind him, but this is a great start.
Keep an eye on... Joe Vitale
Joe Vitale had an exceptionally strong outing. Despite limited ice time, he made quite an impression whenever he took a shift. He showed great composure and good vision, making good plays in the offensive zone and creating a few decent opportunities. He plays with the confidence of a seasoned veteran and, if he continues, he will surely see more shifts come his way.
Come on man, skate harder... Evgeni Malkin
This is why Vancouver went to the Finals, Geno. Even without Ryan Kesler, Vancouver can frustrate top-shelf talent. The pre-season is over so there's no more free shows, these games are for keeps. There were a couple of times when Geno was visibly frustrated to the point where he was about to commit a foolish penalty: that can't happen. The spotlight is on 71 right now which Malkin is supposedly relishing in the chance to prove he can carry the Penguins on his back. However, he's got to be smart about it. Make the adjustments, keep skating hard, and be patient; you can't force it, Geno.