To this point in the season, Western Conference clubs have largely had their way with their counterparts from the East. An exception to that trend, Pittsburgh entered a Saturday night tilt against the red hot Blues with a respectable 2-1 record against out-of-conference foes.
And, in a matchup of two squads that each have their sights set on a long postseason run, fans were treated to an entertaining contest between two of the league’s elite teams. Indeed, from a scrap off the opening draw to the speed, physicality and goaltending displayed throughout the night, the game had a little bit of everything.
In the end, Pittsburgh came up short, falling 2-1 in a tightly contested battle that had a playoff feel to it. Despite the setback, though, there were positives for Dan Bylsma and his club to build on as they head back to Pittsburgh.
The Return of James Neal
It’s no secret that Evgeni Malkin has gotten off to a rocky start this year. If the lack of production, however, truly does stem from the absence of regular wingers (particularly James Neal), that slump may soon come to an end. Because, with Neal returning to the lineup Staurday night, Geno’s world started to return to a sort of normalcy.
While the duo certainly didn’t dominate in St. Louis, they did display the chemistry that makes the two such an effective pair:
After combining with Geno to set up the Pens’ only marker in St. Louis, Neal admitted that he still needs to work on getting his “game legs” back underneath him. Nevertheless, James showed flashes of what makes him such a valuable component of the Pittsburgh lineup:
“I think we saw a couple things from James and him being out there tonight. The shot, two times in the first period. And you saw just the line of Malkin and him when he was out there, even on the power play, that dynamic. That one play there at the end of the first period, it’s one where you see from 71 to 18 and we’ve seen that go in before. But we see how dynamic he is immediately with his shot.” – Dan Bylsma, on Neal’s first game since opening night
That dynamic aspect represents something that has terrorized NHL goaltenders ever since Malkin and Neal started skating together. So, with “The Real Deal” closing in on getting those legs back, it stands to reason that it’s only a matter of time before the duo, once again, dominates the NHL.
Late in October, the Penguins’ special teams (or lack thereof) significantly contributed to a three game skid. From an inabilty to cash in on man advantage opportunities to surrendering untimely power play markers, Pittsburgh faced plenty of issues that needed to be cleaned up.
The Penalty Kill
The Pens penalty kill actually turned a corner following the aforementioned three game losing streak; in fact, the unit has successfully killed 18 of the last 19 penalties against, a stretch that spans six contests.
Against the circuit’s second ranked power play on home ice, it was more of the same. The Penguins, in fact, negated all three Blues’ opportunities. What’s more, the group rose to the occasion when the game was on the line, killing a St. Louis power play late in the third period. While the Penguins ultimately failed to draw even on the scoreboard, the short handed effort kept the club within striking distance, an accomplishment the unit wasn’t able to provide Bylsma et al with on more than one occasion in October.
The Power Play
Much like the penalty kill, the Pittsburgh power play has proven inconsistent this year. On Saturday, though, the unit displayed what it’s truly capable of. And, while it was only one game, it may have served as a warning to the rest of the league.
Listless and even unorganized all too often this year, the Pens’ man advantage finally illustrated why it’s perenially among the NHL’s most feared units. Sure, there were still some careless turnovers but, overall, the group displayed the movement and wizardry with the puck that can make the Penguins almost impossible to defend. And, with Neal on the ice, the Penguins’ playmakers had an additional weapon at their disposal, a luxury that 29 other squads will no doubt envy.
On Pittsburgh’s first man advantage, Jussi Jokinen found himself the beneficiary of Geno’s sublime vision, as the winger redirected a pass into a virtually empty net. On the club’s second opportunity, the Pens nearly completed what would have been a perfect night on the power play had it not been for a near slam dunk that saw Crosby’s redirection ding harmlessly off the post.
So, while it was nice to see the power play convert on one of only two chances against the Blues, the effort may have more importantly served to awaken the talented Pittsburgh group and remind the rest of the league exactly what the unit is capable of.
Yes, Pittsburgh ultimately came up short on Saturday night but, if the team consistently competes like they did against the Blues, they’re going to find success on most nights. From the flashes James Neal showed to the increasingly successful penalty killing unit to a power play on the verge of returning to the NHL’s elite, this is a club that’s providing plenty of examples of why most squads won’t want to face the Penguins as the season moves along.