The Pittsburgh Penguins opened their 2019-20 season on Thursday night in Pittsburgh with a lackluster and dreadful performance. While there were a few small bright spots, the Penguins were outplayed in all three phases of the game by the Buffalo Sabres. While it is just one game, there were some worrying signs for the Penguins that must be cleaned up quickly if they don’t want to fall behind early in the season.
Being at home on opening night, the Penguins were expected to start out strong, fast and motivated. They looked far from that. Buffalo held a 6-1 shot advantage early on in the period and former Penguin Conor Sheary made them pay, as he seemingly always has since he was traded to the Sabres. Multiple poor clearances in Pittsburgh’s own zone was their demise early on.
Even though it was only 16-13 in shots in the first period, the quality of those shots by the Penguins was lacking. Sabres goalie Carter Hutton only had to make one decent save. More high-quality chances will be key to the success of this team.
Defending the Stretch Pass
The Sabres clearly came into opening night with a plan in place to exploit the lack of speed the Penguins blue line possesses. All night, they completed stretch passes and created odd-man situations and high-quality scoring chances. As long as Kris Letang was off the ice, those stretch passes were working to perfection. Johnson and Gudbranson were beaten several times by passes.
The Sabres had multiple breakaways from the neutral zone where goalie Matt Murray needed to come up clutch, which he did. The coaching staff will have a long look at this and need to quickly come up with a plan of attack because the Columbus Blue Jackets will certainly take advantage of that.
Penalties are never timely but the Penguins’ second penalty of the game was ultimately the difference. With the game tied at one goal apiece, the Penguins killed off a penalty but could not control the play. The Sabres pounced and forced defenseman Brian Dumoulin into committing a holding penalty just 31 seconds after the previous penalty was killed.
This was also an issue last season. Too many times, the Penguins would be on consecutive penalty kills, or would commit penalties during power plays. It was an unnecessary penalty for Dumoulin that immediately led to what would end up being the game-winning goal. A criticism of defender Marcus Pettersson was that he commits a lot of penalties. His high sticking penalty was just a lack of awareness in the second period. Pettersson needs to clean up his game or he won’t get the top-four minutes he wants.
Beginning and End of Periods
Another issue for the Penguins last season was allowing a goal in either the first or last minute of the period. This happened yet again as Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin scored to make it 3-1. Dumoulin was caught in the offensive zone and Teddy Blueger didn’t continue skating with Dahlin which led to an easy goal. The Penguins need to clean up the opening and closing minutes of the period to have any chance of success this season. Momentum was firmly swung in the Sabres direction after the goal, and the Penguins were never able to recover.
Lack of Energy or Spark
With the exception of a few players (more on that below), the Penguins were sluggish and apathetic. Not one defenseman stood out. If Letang and Dumoulin aren’t on their game, the rest of the defense won’t be. Most of the forwards were just average. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good either. There was no sense of urgency for Pittsburgh until they got a power play with 2:21 remaining in the game, but by that point, it was too little, too late.
A Few Bright Spots
- Matt Murray looked good tonight. With 38 saves and while being peppered all night long, he stood tall and kept the Penguins in the game. A promising start in a contract year for the netminder.
- The second forward line looked really good. Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, and Brandon Tanev were lively and noticeable whenever they were on the ice. Malkin scored the lone goal for the Penguins on the power play and Tanev drew two power plays, something he did a lot of in Winnipeg. It appears Galchenyuk is healthy and it was a promising start for the second line.
- The power-play goal was a thing of beauty. Hornqvist was getting involved right in front of the net on a loose puck, which Crosby recovered that led to Malkin’s goal. Hornqvist being that presence in front of the net is crucial to success and it was encouraging to see him mixing it up, something that was lacking the second half of last season.
With a matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 5, the Penguins will have an off day to figure out what they did wrong and how to correct it. While tonight was not a good night for Penguins fans, the great thing about hockey is there is always another game right around the corner. A strong performance against the Blue Jackets will ease the minds of Penguins fans. They cannot afford to drop the first few games and face the pressure of falling behind. Fortunately, the glaring mistakes in the game can be fixed. It’s one game. There are 81 still to be played. The Penguins will be fine.