After back-to-back losses to the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally got in the win column in their home opener against the Washington Capitals. The hard-fought battle between division rivals went the distance and ultimately needed a shootout to determine a winner. Jake Guentzel’s lone shootout goal gave the Pens their first victory of the season at PPG Paints Arena, with a 4-3 final score.
It was a fast-paced, heavy-hitting game between the two teams who share no love-loss, and it was the first of eight meetings this season between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. The Pens captain was held off the scoresheet and failed to score in his shootout attempt, while the Caps captain had a goal and an assist in the game, but also missed his shootout attempt. The rivalry was alive and well with a cumulative 79 hits throughout the game, and nine penalties handed out.
The Pens had five powerplays in Sunday’s contest, but failed to capitalize on any of them. The top unit consisting of Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin, Rust, and Letang moved the puck well but struggled to generate any dangerous opportunities to test Ilya Samsonov and the Caps penalty-killers. On a brighter note, the Penguins’ penalty-kill improved as the Caps has just one powerplay goal on a four-on-three powerplay, while the team successfully killed off three additional powerplays. Although the penalty-killers seemed to improve in Sunday’s matchup, the team’s continued powerplay struggles are becoming very worrisome.
After back-to-back losses to the Philadelphia Flyers which saw goaltender Tristan Jarry pulled in the second game, the Pens turned to 29-year-old Casey DeSmith to start the team’s home-opener against the Caps. The American-netminder had not started an NHL game since the 2018-19 season but had an encouraging game against a tough Capitals offense. DeSmith made 20 saves on 23 shots leaving him with a 2.77 goals against average and an .870 save percentage in the game. He also made several key saves including one on Alex Ovechkin in the overtime frame that kept his team in the game. The New Hampshire-native was exceptional in the shootout stopping all four shots he faced to backstop the Pens to their first victory of the year.
Coach Mike Sullivan on sitting Jarry; “I have had a couple conversations with Tristan and I think it will be an opportunity to rest his mindset and get a couple workouts with Buck, our goalie coach. We felt that it was the best decision for our group today.”
Sunday’s victory was the first game in which the teams efficient third-line was held off the scoresheet, though depth scoring has continued to be the story surrounding the Pens. The top-line once again got on the scoresheet just 19 seconds into the game when Evan Rodrigues got his first goal of the season, while Colton Sceviour scored his first as a member of the Penguins on a gift from Ilya Samsonov. The teams second-line consisting of Jason Zucker, Evgeni Malkin, and Bryan Rust has continued to struggle, registering just two points through three games that came as assists for Zucker and Rust on a Marcus Pettersson game-tying goal yesterday. However, Malkin is still looking for his first point of the season and his line have yet to make an impact. To this point, the 34-year-old has not quite looked himself and the Pens are in desperate need of their star Russian’s offensive production.
The Pens have allowed an alarming 14 goals through their first three games of the season, leaving both their defense and goaltending called into question. Despite allowing three goals yesterday, the teams’ defense settled down slightly in their third game, however, they played with the bottom-pair of Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel who both looked quite good together on Sunday. Ruhwedel is filling in for Cody Ceci who had a rough start in the team’s first game and has been a healthy scratch in the last two, while Riikola made his season debut replacing Mike Matheson who the team has placed on the IR.
“Mike was not a healthy scratch. He was injured in the last game. Right now, his status is ‘longer-term’ with an upper-body injury. I don’t have a timeframe for you at this point.” said Coach Sullivan postgame.
The Pens number one defenseman Kris Letang is also experiencing a slow start to the year after recording zero points through the first three games and being a minus-4 in those games. The Quebec-native has been visibly frustrated and looks to get his game back on track. The Penguins hope to get their stars going and become less dependent on their depth.
Some good news for the Penguins comes as Kasperi Kapanen has worked out his issues involving his visa, cleared his Covid-protocols and has joined the team. He will be available next game and will likely replace Evan Rodrigues on the top-line to play alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. The Finnish-forward is excited to finally join his teammates and play for the Penguins.
“People expect a lot out of us. The coaches expect a lot out of us. That brings out the best in the team. I have to be at my best, at my A-game. That’s what I’m looking forward to…I’m just excited for this opportunity.” said Kapanen.
He will bring speed and skill to the top-line to complement Crosby and Guentzel and hopefully spark some more offensive production from the teams’ top-two lines. The former 2014 first-round pick (22nd overall) by the Pens was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a part of the Phil Kessel deal. This past offseason, the 24-year-old was re-acquired by the Pens. He has registered 90 career points in 202 NHL games. The former 20-goal scorer’s return will likely see a struggling Sam Lafferty drop out of the lineup on Tuesday night.
The Penguins will be back in action at PPG Paints Arena tonight at 7 PM EST for a rematch against the Caps where they look to build off their victory and improve to 2-2 on the year.