The Pittsburgh Penguins played their season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, October 10, at PPG Paints Arena. The team is coming into this season with expectations of playoff contention, and they’ve built their roster in a way that shows the organization’s desire to win now. However, Pittsburgh’s performance in game one was underwhelming, to say the least. The game’s final score was 4-2 in favor of the Blackhawks, with the Blackhawks scoring all four goals in the latter half of the game, unanswered. The top line was the only one that scored for the Penguins, with goals from Rust and Crosby. Pittsburgh looked excellent out of the gate, but their pace dwindled as the game went on, leaving Chicago to take full advantage. Although the final score was not favorable to the Penguins, there are still many things—positive and negative—that we can take away from their performance.
One of the positive takeaways here is Pittsburgh’s defense. The players and pairings Head Coach Mike Sullivan has put together work well. On the first pair, Ryan Graves and Kris Letang have an outstanding balance of size, speed, and skill. Graves is very defensively responsible and skilled, allowing Letang to join the rush more often and show off his offensive abilities, which resulted in a goal for Bryan Rust in the early goings of Tuesday’s game. The Pettersson-Karlsson pairing is much the same: solid offensive capabilities on top of incredible skating and defensive positioning. The third pair of P.O. Joseph and Chad Ruhwedel also works well, with Ruhwedel contributing a lot to the Penguins’ penalty kill, although they probably won’t see the ice nearly as much as the top two pairs.
The Penguins’ special teams were a bit of a struggle in Tuesday’s contest. While the power-play has all the pieces to be great, it still struggles with generating chances and sustaining pressure. One reason for this is their inability to enter the offensive zone cleanly. They often allow themselves to get shut down by the defense in the neutral zone and on the blue line. Zone entry was a problem for the power play last year as well, and until they can figure out how to adequately handle the puck on the blue line, the power play will still struggle.
Another reason the power play couldn’t capitalize on Tuesday was because of shot volume. The Penguins’ power play is so talented, yet they often look for the nifty pass instead of taking a clear shot, which often leads to a turnover and a defensive clear for the opponent. Again, this was a problem for the team last year, and it remains to be seen whether it is a problem with the players or the coaching. Either way, if Pittsburgh can’t figure out how to produce chances and score power-play goals, they will have difficulty winning any games this season.
The penalty kill was another area of concern for Pittsburgh. While Chicago still didn’t score any power-play goals against them, the Penguins’ penalty kill allowed many high-danger chances. They struggled to get the puck out of the zone when they had it on their sticks, and they allowed multiple turnovers that could have been potentially very costly if it weren’t for Tristan Jarry making some solid saves.
While the special teams struggled on Tuesday, they still have the potential to be incredible. With Crosby, Malkin, and Karlsson all on your top power-play unit, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be scoring at least 20% of the time. Kyle Dubas has set up this team for success; it is now up to them and the coaching staff to make it count.
The inability to finish games well was a problem that riddled the Penguins last season, and it once again reared its ugly head in game one. The Penguins have struggled dramatically in finishing games over the past several years, having blown ten multi-goal leads in the 2022-23 season. Pittsburgh is the oldest team in the league, with an average age of 30.6 years, which likely is a significant contributor to this problem. However, they are still an NHL team that needs to be able to play their best hockey for 60 minutes a night. Again, it is possible that that problem could lie with our team, but it could also be coaching. However, the fact remains: If Pittsburgh finds themselves consistently unable to close out contests again this year, you can count them out of any significant contention.
The Penguins have only played one game this season—anything could happen from here. However, this does not mean there aren’t some question marks still to be resolved within Pittsburgh’s lineup. Many of Pittsburgh’s players had glimmers of greatness throughout the game: Jake Guentzel looked terrific, and Tristan played very well. But as a whole, if Tuesday was just a taste of what the rest of the season will look like, changes will eventually have to be made. However, it is still so early in the season, and with the Penguins being on the older side, it may take a few games for them to get into the swing of things. Either way, one thing is sure: we’re in for an exciting season of Penguins hockey.