Pittsburgh Penguins: Season Update
By: Wyatt Silverman
After the first two weeks of the NHL regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have compiled a 3–1 record. Although it’s a small sample size, there have definitely been things to take note of in these last 240 minutes of hockey.
Going into the season, after a front-office reorganization, and the replacement of most of the coaching staff, expectations were vague for the Penguins. Many thought they would compete in, and likely win, the Metropolitan Division. However, many observers were unsure how the team would take to the system and message being offered by the new Head Coach, Mike Johnston. On top of that, new GM Jim Rutherford had revamped the Pens’ roster, especially among the bottom-six forwards. It was definitely an “out with the old, in with the new” type of off-season.
Before coming to Pittsburgh, Johnston had a successful tenure with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, leading them as both their coach and GM. He left the team with a career record of 231–114–10–10. Before his time in the WHL, Johnston had nearly a decade of experience as an NHL assistant coach, and was involved with the Canadian Olympic and World Championship teams. On the downside, he was the Pens’ second choice behind Willie Desjardins, who chose to lead the Canucks, and would have lost out to Mike Babcock, if he decided to leave the Red Wings.
Still, what’s past is prologue. Now that the season has begun, past accomplishments are far less important than results. Fortunately for Johnston, the early reports are pretty good. The team is well-positioned in the division, and the Penguins lead the league in scoring with a 4.00 Goals/Game average.
In another example of offensive prowess, the Pens are scoring on the power play at a 47.1% clip, nearly 14% better than the second-place Blues. New assistant coach Rick Tocchet had been saying for years that he could lead the Penguins to success on the PP, and he’s apparently made the most of that opportunity.
Sidney Crosby has also been in excellent form, retaining his usual spot atop the scoring leaderboard. #87 has 9 points in only 4 games, and is also in the top 10 for goals. New acquisition Patric Hornqvist is close behind with 8 points, 4 goals, and a league-leading 28 shots on goal. His strong performance has helped to assuage concerns about the loss of James Neal (traded for Hornqvist and forward Nick Spaling).
Hornqvist has played primarily with Crosby and Chris Kunitz, and that line has clicked really effectively. The trio has combined for 22 points in the early going. “Horny,” as he is called by teammates, has found success with a constant net-front presence, something that was sorely lacking from last year’s Penguins team.
Another key is how well teams can rebound from weak points in the season. So far, the Penguins have come back nicely from a few big issues.
First of all, after a rough loss to the Dallas Stars (including 3 unanswered goals) Pittsburgh followed up with a solid 3–1 victory over their division rivals, the New York Islanders. The collapse against Dallas can be explained by a scary injury to winger Pascal Dupuis. Only 3 games into his return from ACL surgery, Duper was crosschecked onto the ice, then took a puck to the neck. As a result, he was carried off the ice on an immobilizing backboard.
As it turned out, that was only a precautionary measure. Dupuis returned for the next game. It would have been far more surprising from nearly any other player, but Dupuis has been showing his durability for years.
The other major concern from the early games was extremely poor penalty killing. The Penguins were making other teams look like they had the Penguins’ power play. Typically, the penalty kill is considered one of the last thing to gel, so despite the bad results, the team wasn’t pressing the panic button yet. Before the game, Nick Spaling said, “Every PK, especially the start of the year, it’s about finding your rhythm and getting everybody on the same page. We’re on our way to doing it, and we want to start tonight.”
Going up against the Islanders, who had the NHL’s number 2 power play before Saturday night, would be a significant test. Fortunately for the Penguins, they passed with flying colors, stopping the Isles all 7 times they had the man advantage.
Another highlight of the early season has been winger Steve Downie’s performance. Downie was brought in to play physical, antagonistic hockey, and he has done so in spades. Against New York, he had a huge hit, and immediately had to fight defenseman Travis Hamonic, who took umbrage to the collision. Downie won the fight, and Hamonic (hated by many Pens fans) was ejected for taking an instigator penalty.
Obviously, it’s unwise to put too much stock into less than a handful of games, but there have been a lot of positive developments for the Penguins. Johnston’s system seems to match up very well with Pittsburgh’s talented players, and Rutherford’s acquisitions have done a great job of patching holes in last year’s roster.
For a team like the Penguins, where the regular season is only a build-up to the playoffs, I’ve been happy to see the team play such enjoyable hockey, with high-scoring games and physicality. If Johnston can make the most of his 82 games, I believe the Pens can fix the issues that have plagued them in the postseason in recent years.
Next week, after the Penguins have battled the Flyers, Red Wings, and Predators, we will have a much better sense of how the season is going. I expect at least a 2–1 record in that trio of games. I’ll have a full report next Sunday.