The Pittsburgh Penguins exceeded expectations on their road trip to western Canada. The Pens beat the Stanley Cup runner-up Vancouver Canucks to start the 2011-12 season on Thursday. Saturday day night against the Calgary Flames, the Penguins went into the hostile confines of the Saddledome, and held on for a 5-3 victory after nearly giving away 4-1 lead in the third period. An unfortunate shootout loss to the young Edmonton Oilers gave the Penguins five out of a possible six points on their three game road trip.
While blowing a 3-2 lead entering the third period against the Canucks, the resilient Pens hung on to steal a victory in a shootout. Kris Letang embarrassed Roberto Luongo on a double-fake, and roofed a high backhand while Luongo fell flat on his stomach. Evgeni Malkin put the icing on the cake by showing patience until Luongo, once again, fell to his stomach. Malkin flipped an easy forehand shot into a wide open cage.
Penguins fans should have realized two important things from the Vancouver game. The first item is that Evgeni Malkin needs to score in shootouts this season. He is too talented of a hockey player to not be scoring on at least 35% of his shootout attempts.
Geno cashing in on his first shootout attempt of the season did wonders for his confidence. If he would have missed on that attempt, we all, including Malkin, would’ve been taking the “here we go ago again” mentality.
In the past two seasons, Malkin has looked like he’s lost and wants nothing to do with taking part in a shootout. Scoring on his first attempt this season proves to himself he has what it takes to score at a consistent rate. Scoring against one of the premiere goaltenders in the NHL should also help the confidence of his entire game.
This is a new Evgeni Malkin. He worked out all of the off-season to rehab his surgically repaired knee. Rumors were swirling throughout the city of Pittsburgh all summer long that Malkin was in the best shape of his life. Not only will Malkin’s physical conditioning make him a force, but producing more and more in specific situations will make Malkin more confident and make opposing teams fear him.
The other thing Pens fans realized in the first game of the season is how much the Penguins missed the services of Matt Cooke to end last season. The Pens need Cooke in their lineup. Not only does Cooke bring grit to the Pens everyday lineup, but he has an unbelievable all-around skill set that very few carry in the NHL. Cooke can play a physical game, score goals and kill penalties.
Cooke put in a beautiful behind-the-net feed from Pascal Dupuis for a power play tally and scored a shorthanded snipe that ended up being the game winning goal against the Canucks.
Matt Cooke is an outstanding penalty killer and can definitely light the lamp 15-20 times this season. He would have been a difference maker against the Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s opening playoff series — a playoff bout in which the Pens had a 3-1 series lead. There more than likely would have have been a play involving Cooke that would’ve changed the end result for the Penguins. Cooke is one of the best penalty killers in the NHL and one of the anchors for a Penguins unit which was ranked #1 in penalty killing at the end of last season. Despite their regular season success killing penalties, the Penguins struggled mightily against the Lightning’s power play unit in the playoffs.
Although the Pens can’t improve statistically on the penalty kill this season, they can surely improve their power play production. They ranked 25th on the power play at the end of the 2010-11 season. The Pens scored on a meager 15.8% of their power play opportunities.
The Pens had everyone excited with their power play success in the preseason, but we all know that the preseason is irrelevant. Going 4 for 8, they registered two power play goals in each of their first two games. The power play has exceeded expectations. Nevertheless, this type of production is expected from the Penguins when Evgeni Malkin is quarterbacking the power play.
All four PP goals were by different contributors. Cooke and James Neal had the power play goals in the first game against Vancouver. Tyler Kennedy and Matt Niskanen scored the power play goals in the second period against the Flames Saturday night.
The Pens power play should be given a pass after going 1-for-8 against the Edmonton Oilers Sunday night. Letang registered a PP goal from a blast from the left point, but that was the only bright spot of the Pens power play against the Oilers. Without Malkin or Sidney Crosby on either PP unit, the Pens power play cannot be held to the same expectations. With neither one of the Pens superstars running a power play unit, that means that the opposing teams best penalty killers will be matched up with what would normally be the Pens second power play unit.
For the first two games, the power play looked new and improved with Malkin running things. Even the second PP unit was doing damage. The reason for the Pens power play success does not make much sense considering the absence of Sidney Crosby.
When Crosby returns, he cannot be left off of the power play squad despite the early success the Pens have shown. Sid is the most talented forward in the NHL, but he is not the best forward to play on the half wall for the Penguins power play.
There has been an ongoing debate whether Geno or Sid should play on the half wall on the Penguins power play. Malkin needs to own this spot on the power play. He has a harder and more lethal shot from the half wall than Crosby. Malkin can pick out the tightest openings and blast a one-timer like very few can in the league.
When Crosby has been out of the Pens lineup due to injury, the Pens power play has inexplicably seemed to thrive and succeed more than when he’s in the lineup and playing on the power play. This PP success without Crosby hasn’t all of a sudden just started. This phenomenon has been going on for years.
Crosby’s spot on the first or second power play unit should depend upon the success of the Penguins power play numbers going forward. If the Pens have the #1 power play unit when Sid returns, he shouldn’t even play on the top power play unit.
Dan Bylsma has accomplished everything as the Penguins head coach except for constructing a feared power play unit. This has been a never ending frustration for Bylsma and his coaching staff since Bylsma took over as head coach. Bylsma shouldn’t throw Crosby out on the first PP unit and mess with the chemistry of something that is producing at a high rate.
There may be nothing to worry about in the future especially after the way the power play looked against Edmonton. The Pens power play may cool down and the PP definitely won’t continue to produce at a 30% rate, but if they have currently found some sort of resolution, Sidney Crosby needs to take a back seat.
Despite the poor power play performance on the man-advantage Sunday night, the Pens are 5-16 for a 30% success rate. The number 1 power play unit in the NHL is usually just below the 30% mark throughout the season.
If the Pens power play falls back into past form, Bylsma should put Crosby out on the first unit. Although, Crosby needs to be placed in the corner, on the goal line, and give way to Malkin on the half wall.
There has always been talk about the Penguins placing Crosby and Malkin on separate power play units and Bylsma has yet to have the guts to try such a strategy. He could easily place Malkin and Crosby on different PP units and give them their own personal minute on the half wall. This needs to be given a chance. There is no excuse for the Pens to have a sub-par power play unit with the talent on their roster.
Everyone should be able to realize that Evgeni Malkin is the key to the Penguins power play success. He can bring the puck into the offensive zone and set up the PP unit. He can make pretty passes with his eyes closed. Geno is the Penguins best power play goal scorer and he’ll have to be going forward.