For the first time since the 2015-16 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t entering as the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Instead, they were looking to get revenge for their second-round defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals — the new defending champs. They were given an early chance to do so, opening the 2018-19 schedule against the Capitals on Oct. 4. The Penguins came out of the game 7-6 victory in overtime.
The Penguins’ second game of the week was a 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens where they were thoroughly embarrassed. Of course, it’s too early to push the panic button, but allowing 11 goals in the first two games isn’t an ideal beginning to the season.
While the season is only two games old, there’s still been a number of things to take note of — both good and bad. In this week’s edition of Penguins Pulpit, we’ll look at Kris Letang setting the team record for points by a defenseman, the team’s turnover and defensive issues, and Matt Murray’s dreadful start.
Letang’s New Franchise Record
After an inconsistent 2017-18, Letang entered the new season looking to prove he’s still among the NHL’s elite blueliners, and he’s trending in the right direction so far. In the season opener, Letang scored the overtime winner to cap off a three-point night (two goals, one assist) in what was the classic Letang game. He had some questionable moments, but in the end, he made up for them with what he did right.
Letang’s three-point opener gave him 440 points for his career, tying him with Paul Coffey for the most in franchise history among defensemen. Letang quickly broke the tie, as his assist on Riley Sheahan’s second-period goal on Saturday night gave him sole possession of first, with 441 points in a Penguins uniform. After the game, Letang reflected on his career and spoke candidly about what it meant to be the franchise’s new defensive scoring leader.
“It’s exciting. It’s great,” Letang said. “I’ve been here my whole career. I’ve played with great players. To get my name written in next to Paul Coffey is pretty cool. You grow up and you just dream about playing in the NHL. Now, to have my name next to Paul Coffey, it’s pretty exciting.”
It took Letang 684 games compared to Coffey’s 331; however, it’s an impressive accomplishment considering what Letang has gone through in his career. The 31-year-old has suffered a number of concussions, underwent major neck surgery in April 2017, and had a stroke in 2014. Throughout the personal hardships, he’s remained among the best offensive rearguards in the league and has been a critical part of the Penguins’ success since the late 2000s.
According to Bob Grove, Letang is now one of nine active defensemen who are their teams’ all-time leading scorer on the blue line — though Letang is the first to do it on a team that existed before 1970. The other eight are Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona), Justin Faulk (Carolina), Ryan Suter (Minnesota), Brent Burns (San Jose), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), Collin Miller (Vegas), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg) and Alexander Edler (Vancouver).
I want to thank my teammates and the Pittsburgh organization for all the help and the support all those years without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. A big thank you to the pens fans. pic.twitter.com/BeAQQcuR1B
— Kristopher Letang (@Letang_58) October 7, 2018
Turnovers and Defensive Struggles
The Penguins may be the deepest team in the league, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t a frustrating group to watch. They’re prone to mistakes, many of them are mental, which was on display during the first two games of the season. The team threw the puck around like it was a grenade, lost track of opponents in front of the net, and allowed a startling number of odd-man rushes. It wasn’t under the microscope after game one because of the result though following Saturday night’s game, head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t hold back his thoughts on the team’s performance.
“I think we’re a team right now that just wants to score instead of playing the game the right way and that means playing on both sides of the puck,” Sullivan said. “Right now, we’re not even close to where we need to be. I know we have a talented group and I know we can score. Until we learn how to play defence and become harder to play against, we’re not going to control outcomes.”
Sullivan, like everyone else, knows the Penguins can score, although it appears they have little interest in preventing goals against. Only Letang and Justin Schultz have provided some resistance on the blue line, and the forward group hasn’t been much better.
Evgeni Malkin has had two straying passes in the defensive zone directly lead to goals — one on Thursday and one on Saturday — but this isn’t new for him, everybody just lives with it because he’s one of the best players in the world. Turnovers are a part of the game and usually harmless but at some point, you need to demonstrate situational awareness. This is especially valid when playing on a defensively vulnerable team like the Penguins.
Brian Dumoulin, who’s a valuable presence on the first pairing, hasn’t been strong in his first two games. It’s possible he rushed himself back from the upper-body injury he suffered in the preseason, but this shouldn’t be a cause for concern down the road. Dumoulin has the track record to prove it’s just a bumpy start and has four days to get back to 100 percent before the Penguins play again.
Free-agent signing Jack Johnson hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t been good either. He’s already been on the ice for three goals against at five-on-five but does hold a CF% of 53.7. If he can continue being a positive possession player, it will be good for both Johnson and the team. Though it’s not going to happen if the Penguins continue giving Johnson 21:33 of ice time (TOI) per night. He isn’t a top pairing guy and shouldn’t be deployed as such, especially on a team with championship aspirations.
Related – New Faces, New Places: Jack Johnson
The Penguins’ defensive and turnover issues will likely balance itself out because of their talent level, but it’s never good to struggle out of the gate. If it does continue, Sullivan may look to insert rookie blueliner Juuso Riikola into the lineup to produce a needed spark for his team.
What’s Up With Matt Murray?
The 2017-18 season isn’t one Murray wants to remember any time soon. He struggled with injuries, the death of his father, and poor on-ice play en route to a 27-16-3 record with a .907 save percentage (SV%) and 2.92 goals-against average (GAA) in 49 games. Murray did give fans hope of a return to form during the preseason as he looked sharp, allowing four goals in two games. Unfortunately, it hasn’t carried over into the regular season, as Murray has posted a 1-1-0 record with a .831 SV% and 5.47 GAA in two games.
The Penguins’ two-way play has been horrendous so far, and they’ve frequently left Murray out to dry. You can only really blame him for five of the 11 goals he’s given up. At some point, though, Murray needs to bail his teammates out with the occasional save or two. Maybe he’s struggling to adjust to the smaller equipment for goalies, or maybe Murray’s just not the elite netminder everybody thought he was. Of course, it’s premature to make such bold assumptions, and Murray has earned the chance to rebound. It makes no sense to write him off after two games when the team has been average as a group. As THW’s Mike Necciai said when he discussed Murray’s current three year, $11.25 million contract back in 2016; until Murray provides fans, a reason to not believe in him, they should remain confident in his ability to rebound.
What’s Up Next:
Penguins games next week:
Oct. 11 vs. Golden Knights
Oct. 13 @ Canadiens
Leading scorer of the week: Kris Letang (two goals, two assists).
Three stars of the week:
- Kris Letang
- Jake Guentzel (two goals)
- Daniel Sprong (two assists)
What were your thoughts on the Penguins first week of action? Let us know in the comment section below.
Conner McTague is a recent graduate of the Journalism program at Durham College. He covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. He hopes to make a career out of sports reporting.