Pittsburgh would have been hard pressed to get their campaign off to a better start. Their team speed led to a number of good scoring chances, outshooting Philadelphia heavily early on. Tyler Kennedy tipped a Paul Martin (more on him later) shot past Ilya Bryzgalov at 4:40 of the 1st. The PK units (more on them later) killed off a Philly power play after Dustin Jeffrey was pinged for slashing ten seconds later. Then - in what's sure to become known as 'The Neal Play' when the two hook up throughout the season - Evgeni Malkin won a face-off cleanly back to James Neal, who whipped a shot from the top of the left circle into the far corner to open up a two-goal lead after only 7:20.
Philly got back into the game in the 2nd, after Brooks Orpik got caught pinching. Scott Hartnell was forced wide down the left wing by a resurgent Martin, but delivered a dandy of a saucer pass which barely evaded Chris Kunitz's covering stick and landed squarely on the tape of Claude Giroux. The new Flyers' captain made no mistake, sliding the puck under Marc-Andre Fleury to cut the Pens' lead in half.
The rest of the way, despite Philly holding a shots lead in the final two periods, the Penguins looked pretty comfortable right up until Kunitz shoveled the puck into an empty net with 11.2 seconds left. There were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments - which undoubtedly would have seen the puck in the Pens net last April - but they survived.
5 Key Points
1. Paul Martin plays well? Is that allowed?If you take a cursory look at the plus/minus column, Martin is on pace to finish with a -48 rating. So, back to last year's turnover-prone horror show then? Well, no. Not even slightly. Despite some people on Twitter trying to blame him for the Flyers goal, he actually defended it as well as possible. Perfectly positioned to cover Orpik's pinch on the left side, he forced Scott Hartnell out wide, allowing Kunitz to get back to at least contest the slot with Giroux. Hartnell made a fabulous play which beat not only Martin, but Kunitz and Fleury as well. No shame in that.
The veteran D-man actually produced one of his best games in a Penguins uniform. He utilized his excellent skating to command the ice more aggressively. He blocked three shots with his active stick - something which will particularly have pleased Dan Bylsma. Add to that his shot that TK redirected for the opening goal, and his interception - by standing strong in the neutral zone - of a Flyers pass to set up Kunitz's empty netter and you have arguably the team's best performer. Long may it continue!
2. Marc-Andre Fleury: Wall-FlowerFleury was shelled for 26 goals in the playoff loss. He looked tired, and out of his zone, regressing to the overactive style that hindered him early in his career. Saturday, he looked calm, assured and made a number of crucial saves, including some sequences he simply would not have made in April.
The most pleasing thing was how easy he made most of his saves look. Fleury seemed still for most of the night. Sure, he made some trademark side-to-side stops and flung himself on a couple of loose pucks, but gone was the overcompensation; no sliding outside the post and getting beat far side.
What looked like a routine save in the 3rd summed his performance up. Dustin Jeffrey made a brain-dead cross ice pass in the defensive zone, which was picked up and shot wide by a Flyer. The puck came back off the end boards, straight to the stick of Eric Wellwood, who shot the puck hard on net. Straight into an immobile Fleury's chest. A great read and great positioning. Outstanding.
3. (Penalty) Killing the DemonsIn April, the Penguins flat-out could not stop the Flyers from scoring with the man advantage. At times it looked like they could score at will.
Last night, the Flyers had five power play chances. The Penguins killed all five. The PK units looked nothing like they did back in April. Indeed, the personnel have changed considerably. Jordan Staal is in Carolina; Zbynek Michalek in Phoenix. So, Bylsma used a plethora of players - including the outstanding Brandon Sutter - to kill penalties, taking advantage of stoppages of play to keep the forward pairs fresh. In fact, Bylsma kept a good rotation of players going all game - key in a compressed season - with only Dustin Jeffrey getting less than 10 minutes of ice time.
Good penalty killing starts in net, and Fleury was perfect, stopping all 11 of Philadelphia's man advantage shots. But the units as a whole seemed to spend less time running around the ice chasing Flyers or the puck, concentrating on protecting and collapsing around the net when necessary.
Most intriguingly, both #87 and #71 saw time with the PK units. This is sure to create huge mismatches against opposing power plays in the future, particularly if Malkin continues to strip the puck from opponents apparently at will.
4. Unsung HeroesPenguins fans are going to get to like Brandon Sutter very quickly. He looked like he had been part of the team for years last night, adding an outstanding defensive presence. He also dominated the faceoff circle, winning 57% of his draws. Faceoffs have been a problem for Pittsburgh, but with Sutter, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's increased success in this area, this will soon be eradicated. All Pens centers (Crosby, Malkin, Sutter, Jeffrey) won over half their faceoffs.
And a special mention must go to Craig Adams. Just in case anyone didn't know, NBC's coverage team made sure it was clear he's a Harvard grad. This has nothing to do with his hockey smarts, but he certainly used his head in the 3rd period. A Flyers shot finally snuck past Fleury and was heading straight into the net. Adams, back-checking hard, arrived in the crease just in time to stop the puck crossing the line and cleared it away, preserving the 2-1 scoreline. Awesome.
5. Players Under ScrutinyIt has been noted before that some of the players in Dan Bylsma's lineup have got something to prove. Eric Tangradi is getting another chance to stick in the top-six. Simon Despres - Bylsma's favoured son it would seem - is in the lineup despite concerns over his development; Bryan Strait is now an Islander since he was sent down not Despres. And I think everyone was surprised when Jeffrey got the nod on the fourth line over Joe Vitale.
Jeffrey didn't have a great game outside of the faceoff circle - where he was excellent, winning 5 of 8 - taking an unnecessary penalty and making some errant passes, so we'll see whether Vitale gets a chance against New York tonight.
As for the other two, Despres played alright and wasn't particularly obvious, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, Tangradi was virtually anonymous, which is not. If Tangradi cannot get himself into games playing alongside the reigning MVP and a 40-goal scorer, it can only be a matter of time before Beau Bennett hears his phone ringing in Wilkes-Barre, or Ray Shero pulls the trigger on a trade for a proven scorer. That will be a shame, but Tangradi needs to find the net, and soon.
Two points are important in any season, but in a schedule slashed to 48 games every point is at a premium. Add that every game will be played against Eastern Conference opposition, and winning in regulation, thus keeping the extra point for a regulation tie away from rivals, becomes even more valuable. That the Penguins were able to hold on to a slender lead through more 50 minutes of play speaks volumes to their improved defensive play last night.
And beating the Flyers will always feel great anyway, right?
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