Taking three of four points to open the season probably would have been fine by the Pittsburgh Penguins a week before the season started. Listening to the Penguins on Thursday night, that remains the case.
And really, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Pittsburgh was without its top two centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, for two road games against two of the perceived best teams in the Eastern Conference. In the opener, which was also played without first-line left wing Jake Guentzel, the Penguins beat the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning 6-2.
The only thing separating Pittsburgh, and its fans, from euphoria, is the third period against the Florida Panthers on Thursday. After coming back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 4-2 third-period lead, two Aaron Ekblad goals sent it to overtime for Carter Verhaeghe to win it 5-4 for Florida.
That slightly spoiled things, but not nearly enough to take away credit that’s due.
What the Penguins Displayed
Pittsburgh proved that without two of its brightest stars (three counting Guentzel in the season opener), it could compete with any team on any night. Really, that should come as no surprise. The Penguins have been one of the more injury-riddled teams throughout Mike Sullivan’s first six seasons as coach. That shouldn’t be expected to change in season No. 7.
But despite injuries to key players, the Penguins seem to win or grab a point in games many write off as a loss. That boils down to Sullivan’s approach. When it’s without high-profile players, Pittsburgh plays a disciplined game that would presumably annoy the competition.
That was displayed on Tuesday when Tampa Bay was limited to 28 shots. It wasn’t the case Thursday, which turned into a penalty-filled mess during the second period. Florida finished with nine penalties to Pittsburgh’s six. Kris Letang went to the box twice and ended up a minus-3.
But still, the Penguins did what was needed. They survived this opening trip. More than, in fact. They were so very close to grabbing all four points. They probably should have. But that doesn’t keep these two games from being mostly positive.
“I said to the guys, to get three out of four points from two excellent hockey teams, for me, we should take that as a positive,” Sullivan said after the game Thursday. “We know we can be better. There are areas, without a doubt, where we can improve. But we’re playing against two outstanding teams down here. I just thought our guys competed hard.
“That’s a positive sign from our standpoint. I think it’s something to build on. We’ll see what we can take out of these. We’ll try to learn from them and we’ll move by them.”
Penguins Head Home for Eight Straight
And with that, Pittsburgh gets to head back to PPG Paints Arena. An eight-game homestand will start Saturday against Marc-Andre Fleury (maybe) and the Chicago Blackhawks. It won’t conclude until Nov. 6 against the Minnesota Wild.
If the Penguins are to set themselves up nicely for the rest of the season, that will be their chance to do so. They’ll still be without Malkin, who is expected to miss two months after having knee surgery on June 4 but could be relatively healthy otherwise.
First-line right wing Bryan Rust left the game Thursday after taking a hit in the opening minute of the third period. His status is up in the air since Sullivan didn’t provide an update. Defenseman Mike Matheson is day-to-day with a nagging lower-body injury, so they should be back soon enough. Forward Zach Aston-Reese is working his way back from the NHL COVID-19 protocol. Guentzel returned from the protocol to score in his 300th NHL game Thursday.
And there’s Crosby, but let’s talk about him in a bit.
Overall, depending on a Rust update, the Penguins could be considerably healthier soon. That should pay dividends heading to PPG Paints Arena, where they were 22-4-2 (as opposed to 15-12-1 on the road) last season.
All that hard work in Florida could be squandered with a poor showing at home. This early in the regular season, it’s almost comical to discuss the importance of a set of games, but an eight-game homestand in October/November counts just as much as one in March. If taking three of four points on the road was counted as a huge win, it could be assumed at least winning five of these next eight would help that feeling persist into late November.
Otherwise, these opening two games might not matter much beyond their individual outcomes. The big picture is what’s important for a Penguins team tasked with battling through a tough Metropolitan Division. Good thing for them, their most valuable player should be available to help through at least part of this upcoming stretch.
Crosby Could Be Close
It would not be a shock to see Crosby return in the home opener Saturday. He had skated on his own throughout camp before joining the team for a morning skate on Oct. 8. After practicing Monday, Crosby took the Florida trip to continue working with the Penguins.
Practice Friday could be the ultimate sign. If Crosby returns to his spot at first-line center during line rushes, it can be assumed he’s good to go against the Blackhawks. If not, maybe the Penguins will have to wait a bit longer to have him back in the fold.
Either way, Crosby shouldn’t be absent much longer. And upon his return, the lineup starts to take shape. Again, assuming Rust isn’t out long if, at all, the first line of Crosby centering Guentzel and Rust would reunite. That bumps Jeff Carter to second-line center.
There, Carter would join left wing Jason Zucker and right wing Kasperi Kapanen. Of course, once Malkin comes back, Carter would be the third-line center. That’s when the Penguins could really get going, but that’s still some time away.
But Carter, who scored his 400th NHL goal Thursday, has shown he is fully capable of producing at center in the top-six. Nothing to worry about there.
“All in all, I think it’s a great start for us,” Carter said Thursday. “I thought we played really well in Tampa. That was a great effort by everybody. Tonight, we got behind. They came out hot right out of the gate there, as to be expected. We kind of hung on there, and then we battled back. At some point during the year, you’re going to have to battle back. You’re going to have to grind them out. I thought the guys did a great job of doing that.”
The bottom-six gets Evan Rodrigues back, which would be a nice addition to that group. It would get another boost once Aston-Reese feels well enough to play.
The defense needs to play the way it did against Tampa. If it does, that helps Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in net. If the Penguins perform more like they did Thursday, life could be challenging for either goalie.
But the puzzle pieces start fitting once Crosby returns. And if another game or two needs to go by without him, the Penguins have shown they’re fully capable of surviving.
Wes Crosby is a freelance reporter, covering the Penguins for THW and serving as NHL.com’s Pittsburgh correspondent since 2013. He has also covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates for the Associated Press since graduating from Duquesne University in May 2013. During his tenure with NHL.com, Wes covered the Penguins’ two most recent Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017.