Pittsburgh Penguins: 5 Lessons Learned From The Weekend

The Pittsburgh Penguins split their weekend games against the Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils. What did we learn from the unexpected loss and blowout win?

The Pittsburgh Penguins played back-to-back games last weekend, facing the Calgary Flames on Saturday and the New Jersey Devils on Sunday. Now that the weekend’s over and they’re looking forward to tomorrow’s match in Brooklyn, we can analyze five lessons that were learned from the weekend tilts.

In case you missed either game, here’s a quick recap.

The Pens should have easily beat the Flames, who are last in the Pacific Division. Naturally, they didn’t. Sidney Crosby scored both goals for the Penguins, while Joe Colborne, Mark Giordano, Mikael Backlund, and Lance Bouma scored the four for Calgary.

Following the disappointing loss, the Pens came out to win in Newark the next day. Evgeni Malkin scored twice, and Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust, and Scott Wilson each tallied one. Kyle Palmieri netted the lone goal for New Jersey as Matt Murray was stellar in net.

From a disappointing 4-2 loss to a stunning 6-1 blowout, what did we learn about the Penguins team we have?

Less Fleury, More Murray, No Worries

Promising young star Matt Murray appears to have taken over the job of backup goalie from Jeff Zatkoff. Murray is 21 years old and 6’3″, nimble enough to make some impressive and active saves.

Last year, playing with the Penguins’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, Murray won myriad awards and was named the best AHL goaltender. He spent most of this season playing there too, but recently has begun to be groomed as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s ultimate successor.

Fleury, ten years older and one inch shorter, is a great goalie and will probably be a Penguin for the remainder of his career. While he’ll surely be the starting goalie for the playoffs – should the Penguins make it to that point – he’s getting more rest as the season winds down.

Since so many games are crunched into the remaining few weeks, Fleury would be absolutely exhausted come playoffs if he played them all. The tough schedule allows for Murray to get his feet wet in the NHL, and he’s done a darn good job so far.

Let’s Get Physical

Tom Sestito played his first game in black and gold against the Devils after spending the whole year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Sestito is a giant enforcer whose physical presence will be a boon in the home stretch. Most of the remaining games are against Metropolitan Division rivals, or at the very least other Eastern Conference teams.

Mar 6, 2016; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils right wing Jordin Tootoo (22) fights with Pittsburgh Penguins Tom Sestito during the first period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Those games are, without fail, chippy, physical, and must-wins. Guys like Sestito change the whole atmosphere of the game, balancing the scales out. In this game, he battled the small but powerful Jordin Tootoo. Though he lost (pretty quickly), it definitely added momentum and showed that the Penguins were not there to be pushed around.

That message may be important down the road for stars like Carl Hagelin, who may have suffered a concussion in the game against the Flames. Though he returned to the game and didn’t have any symptoms, he woke up on Sunday feeling poorly and was held out for precautionary reasons.

Increasing the number of Penguins who are on the right side of those physical hits is important to building their game.

Baby Pens are Producing

This isn’t particularly new information, given how strong the bottom-six forwards have been playing for over a month. Still, the revolving door of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players has provided offensive boosts and an impressive showing of young guys stepping up to the plate.

In the game against the Devils, lower-line forwards Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson cashed in to score the fifth and sixth goals. Rust also got two assists, and Tom Kuhnhackl added one. Even though a lot of the forwards on the third and fourth lines are rookies or perennial call-ups, the depth of the front end is enviable.

All four lines contributed against the Devils. Meanwhile, only the first line could solve the Flames. The second line of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and (for most of the game) Chris Kunitz didn’t even get a shot off until the very end of the second period.

When all four lines are playing strong and making smart plays, the Penguins prosper. It isn’t rocket science.

The New Guy’s All Right

Justin Schultz had worn out his welcome in Edmonton and the Penguins were looking to add depth on defense. At the trade deadline, Schultz was shipped to Pittsburgh to help alleviate everybody’s problems.

The loss against the Flames is probably the catalyst for Schultz to actually join the lineup. Head coach Mike Sullivan initially said that he wanted to hold Schultz out until he had practiced with the team, and later that he didn’t want to mess with a winning lineup.

As soon as that winning lineup became just a lineup, Schultz was slotted in for Derrick Pouliot. Pouliot is developing well, but is clearly one of the fringe defensemen who could use some more time to grow.

In his first game, Schultz looked like he fit into the system well and even got an assist on one of the goals. He said that speed was the most important factor in the Penguins’ game, and having that awareness helped him make plays and decisions in his debut.

little bit of hazing obviously didn’t hurt, either.

There’s No Quitting

The Penguins’ mental game is a make-or-break for the team. When they lose their cool or get overconfident, they tend to fall apart. When they treat every game like a playoff game seven and play a full sixty minutes, they’re successful.

The Flames had won one game in their last eleven before coming into Pittsburgh. The Devils, a division rival, are knocking on the door of the Eastern wildcard spot. If you had asked most fans ahead of time which team the Pens would beat and which team they’d lose to, the answers you’d get would probably be the opposite of what actually happened.

The Flames completely outplayed the Penguins, especially as the game drug on. There was no drive, no force, no spark in the Pittsburgh players. I’m not a mind-reader, I can’t tell you what was actually going through their brains at that point. But it sure looked a lot like they had given up.

In the upcoming Metropolitan stretch, the Pens have to play every game like they did against the Devils. They can’t go into any game expecting a win, and they can’t give up when they’re behind. The Penguins have gotten better at completing comebacks under Sullivan, but there’s no guarantee. It certainly won’t happen if the guys on the ice give up.

Bonus: Shoot on the Powerplay

This is pretty self-explanatory. The Flames game showcased how adept the Penguins are at passing to each other on the powerplay… not so much at taking shots. Please. Just put the puck on net every chance you can.

Right now, the Penguins are in the first wildcard spot in the East. If they combine the things they learned from this past weekend and run with it, there’s a really good chance to move up in the standings. Tomorrow they play the New York Islanders, who sit three points ahead of them. Getting two points is absolutely crucial, and this is how they’ll do it.