This weekend was one full of action for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team played their second and third games of the year back-to-back, the first in D.C. versus their fierce rival, the Washington Capitals, and the second on home ice against the Calgary Flames. After a disappointing 4-2 loss against Chicago to start the season, Pittsburgh was looking to bounce back and prove themselves this weekend, which they did in a big way.
Game 1: Friday, October 13 @ Washington
The Penguins had two days of rest before they faced the Capitals on Friday, playing their season-opener, and both teams were looking to start strong out of the gate. Pittsburgh and Washington are the two oldest teams in the league, but that didn’t show on the ice in this game.
The first period started slow, but the momentum heavily favored Washington the majority of the time. Pittsburgh struggled to stay on pucks and win battles for possession, which led to significant pressure from Washington. The Capitals were also laying hits and were much more aggressive than the Penguins throughout the entirety of the period. Both teams had several chances throughout the period, but goaltenders Charlie Lindgren and Tristan Jarry played well.
The second period, however, was a completely different story. As soon as the Penguins touched the ice, something was different. A shift in mindset had happened, and the team immediately started playing more aggressively, getting to the puck, making smart plays, and generating chances. Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring on a terrific heads-up play by Erik Karlsson, who capitalized on a turnover from Alex Ovechkin and made a pass to Rickard Rakell, who passed it straight to a wide-open Malkin in the slot. The period also saw many penalties, but the Penguins’ special teams showed up to play. Significantly different from Tuesday’s matchup, Pittsburgh’s power play was finally able to capitalize, Sidney Crosby scoring two on the man advantage to pad the Penguins’ lead. The penalty kill also looked much more confident and aggressive, and once again had a flawless game.
The third period was very similar in play to the second for Pittsburgh, and unlike in the Chicago game, they didn’t let up on the gas. Their play remained physical and competitive, and they possessed the puck for a significant amount of the period. They never slowed as the clock wound down, and they even scored one more on Lindgren for good measure (Reilly Smith being the goal-scorer).
This game was a confidence booster for Pittsburgh. The team needed a big bounce-back, and their stars showed up to ensure that happened. Evgeni Malkin factored in on every Penguin goal in this game, notching three assists and a goal. In addition, Jarry played a phenomenal game and made some elite saves in securing the shutout victory for his team. Overall, this team took a complete turnaround from how they played against Chicago; whether the coaching staff or the players themselves were responsible, something finally clicked for this group on Friday. The physicality and grit were more evident in this team than we’ve seen in a long time, and it made a noticeable impact.
Game 2: Saturday, October 16 vs. Calgary
Riding on their massive victory, the Penguins returned home to PPG Paints Arena for their next contest against the Flames on Saturday. Before the start of this game, it was a concern that Pittsburgh might not be able to play as well as they had in Washington due to the team’s age and the fact that they played such an intense physical game just the night before. But the Penguins never missed a step.
Taking it in stride, they came onto the ice Saturday night with as much determination and grit as they had the night before, and this time, they started the game strong as well. Both teams were playing aggressively to start, and the game got heated rather quickly. In the first period, Calgary took three penalties, and Pittsburgh took two, forcing both teams’ special teams to go to work immediately. Neither team could capitalize despite the amount of power play time both had.
The second period, similarly to the first, saw no scoring until, less than two minutes before the end of the period, Matt Coronato scored his first NHL goal for Calgary on the power play. However, the late goal didn’t shake Pittsburgh’s confidence because they came charging back in the third with two goals in the first 41 seconds of the period. The first goal came from first-line forward Bryan Rust, who scored off a gritty play down low, banking the puck from behind the goal line, off the back end of Calgary goaltender Jacob Markstrom, and into the back of the net. The second goal was from winger Reilly Smith, who scored off a pass from Malkin on a two-on-one, snapping the puck short-side on Markstrom.
Not long after, Jake Guentzel scored his first of the season, slapping a one-timer from the dot off a face-off win from Crosby and a neat pass from Kris Letang. The Penguins continued to pour it on in the third when Malkin appeared on the scoresheet again at 14:14, with a goal assisted by his linemate Smith. The Flames scored a second goal late, but the Penguins sealed the deal with an empty net goal from Rust to end it.
This game was more down the middle of the road than Pittsburgh’s last two games. The Chicago and Washington games were two extremes: Chicago being Pittsburgh at their worst (or close to it) and the Washington game being Pittsburgh at their best. The Penguins played remarkably well in this game but still occasionally made mistakes and were poorly disciplined, showing their mortality. However, they still were able to come out on top because of their gritty mentality, something that they have lacked over the past few seasons.
Overall, this Penguins team has taken a step in the right direction this weekend. Their mentality has obviously shifted, and their play has become significantly more forceful and dynamic, winning battles, gaining more offensive possession, and capitalizing on power plays. We’ve gotten a glimpse of both goaltenders, and both Jarry and Nedeljkovic looked terrific between the pipes. The team that showed up on the ice this weekend is a team that has the ability to be a serious contender, and if they can stay healthy and consistent, there is no doubt that they will be just that.