Penguins’ Opener a Reminder of Last Season

Hockey season is finally back! People can now stop using #isitoctober because that was getting old, and now use #hockeysback or whatever the NHL’s hashtags are. For Pittsburgh Penguins fans who want to forget about last season or the bandwagon fans who only know that they didn’t get to go to a parade in downtown Pittsburgh, we need to review what happened in the 2018-19 season. Believe me, I really don’t want to either, but especially after a disappointing season-opening 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, let’s take a quick look back and just remind ourselves how the team ended up where it is (without the Stanley Cup, without Phil Kessel, and with a particularly determined Evgeni Malkin).

Let’s start with the obvious: Malkin didn’t have a great season. There’s good evidence that the Penguins won’t have that same issue this season. He walked into camp looking tougher and more determined, then had a mostly strong preseason. When Sidney Crosby was out of the lineup, albeit briefly, Malkin took on the captaincy responsibilities and showed that, like in the past, he can step up.

It’d be unfair to pin all the failures of Malkin and the second line last season on Kessel, but it is better for the team that he’s been traded. Playing with Kessel shook up Malkin’s style, forcing him to pass more than shoot. Let’s be honest; selfish Malkin is the best Malkin.

Last Season Recap

The Penguins seemed to start off strong last season, winning most of their games (six out of 10) in October. To dive deep for a second, the three teams that Pittsburgh lost to were: the Toronto Maple Leafs (twice), Vancouver Canucks, and New York Islanders. All but the Canucks wound up in the playoffs. In that same month, the Penguins beat the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that was still riding the high of clinching the Western Conference title in their first season.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby Evgeni Malkin
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby speaks to forward Evgeni Malkin on the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, on Oct. 13 Justin Schultz fractured his left leg in the 4-3 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and the Penguins’ defense was basically in shambles for the rest of the season. According to The Athletic’s Sean Gentille, the Penguins played with 51 defensive combinations at 5-on-5 last season (from ‘The Penguins have a third pair problem. How can Juuso Riikola fix it?’, The AthleticNHL 9/27/19). That’s not good. Hopefully, a healthy defensive roster this season will alleviate the mistakes in their own end and let the team find solid footing by just playing their way.

November was not good. Four wins to too many losses. And those four wins? Against the Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Winnipeg Jets. All the teams except for the Coyotes made it into the playoffs too. It’s a little weird, right? The Penguins were getting beaten (badly, might I add) by teams like the Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators, and New Jersey Devils, but beating the teams who, at the end of the season, would end up some of the best in the league — or at least teams that were scrappy enough to sneak their way in.

December came and so did the wins. They had just four losses: Philadelphia Flyers, Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Ducks. Hold up, none of those teams made it into the playoffs. It could be written off as a couple of those games that a team has to lose (no one wins all of their games, after all), but it should have been a red flag. In a month where the Penguins beat the future Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues 6-1, they should not have lost to the Ducks 4-2.

Juuso Riikola Victor Olofsson
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola and Buffalo Sabres left wing Victor Olofsson (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

January came and it was, really, kind of a throw-away month, minus the loss to the Devils which just – ouch. February was a seven-loss month with a few bright spots. For example, Schultz was activated off of injured reserve. March looked better and the city got hopeful. Regular-season April was short, obviously, and then the playoffs arrived.

As everyone knows, the Penguins were swept by the Islanders in the first round. No, it hasn’t gotten any less painful with time. There’s a lot to point to for that: bad turnovers, bad communication, tired, aging players, a lack of chemistry, a lack of “hunger;” basically, you can take your pick. I’m not going to tear into that now.

Why Does it Matter?

Why, you’re asking, do we want to relive this pain at the start of a new season? It’s because what happened last season will inform this season. Look no further the season-opener. Malkin is the obvious storyline, but it matters to all the players. General manager Jim Rutherford clearly was not impressed by last season, there were a lot of words said, and for a team who won back-to-back Stanley Cups within the past five years, they did not live up to their potential. (From: ‘What did Penguins players’ say about GM Jim Rutherford calling out team chemistry, hunger last season?’, The AthleticNHL 9/23/19).

Still, there is something positive to come out of last season: Crosby had a fantastic season. He put up 100 points and showed no signs of slowing down. He might be 31, but he’s still a serious player and one that, when healthy, the Penguins can count on. The Penguins are mostly a group of seasoned veterans, guys who know how to play and want to win. The best way for them to do it is going to be to look to their captain.

There are also rising guys with bright futures ahead of them. Yes, I mean Jake Guentzel. He also had a career-best season in 2018-19 and looks on pace to keep it up this season. Once the top line gets in gear and settles into a groove, they won’t be chasing the game like they did against the Sabres.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There are just two tricks: the first will be acclimating the new players, though it looks like Alex Galchenyuk will make a strong left wing for Malkin and, as we know, Bryan Rust (and apparently Brandon Tanev) can fill whatever is needed (a defensive mind and fast feet) on the right side. The second trick is going to be keeping guys healthy, which is really luck and not a trick. When Kris Letang is healthy, he’s good. Having consistent defensive pairs that work will be key and solve a fair number of the Penguins’ lingering problems.

But Thursday night was not encouraging — and against the Sabres. There were bad turnovers, bad penalties, bad odd-man rushes, and just a lack of passion, or hunger, to use Rutherford’s word. The bright spot? Malkin got the first goal of the game — and the only of the season thus far for the Penguins. That’s the Malkin we know and love.

Hopefully the Penguins’ miserable showing Thursday night was a fluke. The tone of the season will rest on tonight. If the Penguins can come back and beat the Blue Jackets at home, they’ll prove not only to the city but to themselves that last season’s wishy-washy, good then really bad history is not carrying over into this season. The crowd at PPG Paints Arena Thursday night was pretty silent, and the players voiced their own frustrations with their game. It’s time to level up. Buckle up, guys, here we go.