Pens win sloppy opener vs. Caps

Two seasons ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals met in January. The Penguins scored six goals in the second period and one in the third, with Evgeni Malkin racking up a hat-trick. It had all the makings of a blowout, but the Capitals had a nearly equal offensive output that night, racking up seven goals of their own over the three periods of play. Then, a winger for the Pens, Connor Sheary, scored the game-winner in overtime to give the Penguins the extra point in the standings.

Opening night in PPG Paints Arena (the paint can, as some call it) was a similar game to the one played in Jan. 2017. The Penguins met the Capitals, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, and wanted to send a message that the aging Pittsburgh core wasn’t done fighting for Stanley Cups just yet. The Pens opened the scoring in the first, with defenseman Jamie Oleksiak scoring the first goal of the 2018-19 Pens season on a nice cycling play by the Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel line.

Washington responded quickly, however, with Jakub Vrana scoring from the slot on a nice passing play. They kept the pressure on and went up 2-1 on a Brooks Orpik slapshot that just snuck through Matt Murray’s five-hole. After the game, Murray said, “I feel like my pants were a little open. I was all over it. I guess that’s the new pants.”

Last season, the Penguins’ power play was the best in the league, and the best in Pittsburgh history, scoring 26.2 percent of the time. It showed on Thursday night, as the Penguins responded and tied the game back up at 2 on a Jake Guentzel power-play goal. He slammed home a partially blocked shot that Daniel Sprong took from the slot. Justin Schultz snuck a pass through two defenders to Sprong, whose shot was tipped right onto Guentzel’s tape, letting him slam home the easy goal.

The other theme from last year was rough defense, and it showed on an Alex Ovechkin goal where he slipped past Kris Letang, stopped right in front of the night, and redirected a Christian Djoos shot to pass through the legs of Murray. Nobody picked up Ovechkin and he had all the time in the world to score.

The second period looked significantly better on the Pens’ end. Kris Letang made up for his mistake in the first with a half slapshot goal thirty seconds into the second period. He took a nice backhand pass from Sidney Crosby, who looked like he was shot out of a cannon to start the shift, and slammed it home past Caps goaltender Braden Holtby.

Just three minutes later, Washington responded again. This time it was John Carlson who took the puck into the zone and right to the net, then fired a wrist shot right past the glove hand of Murray. His glove has looked a bit better, but man, it’s just not good. There’s no denying that it’s his weak spot.

Guentzel took care of retying the game at 4 with an insane deflection goal on a Schultz wrist shot from the right point. Schultz was looking for a stick, and he found Guentzel’s. Guentzel got just enough on it to sneak the puck right between Holtby’s legs. I’m expecting big things from Guentzel this year.

Derrick Brassard got on the board on Thursday as well. He jumped on a loose puck created by a Dominik Simon slapshot, then backhanded right past Holtby before he knew what to do. It’s good to see big game Brass get a goal early. It should help that third line be confident through the whole season.

In the third, Malkin put the Pens up by two goals on the power play. Phil Kessel fought off some strong checking by Caps defenders, then passed it off to Crosby below the goal line, who made a pass to Letang at the left circle, who one-touched it right into Malkin’s wheelhouse, who slapped it right past the diving Washington goaltender. Precision passing clinics like this one are going to be a common sight this year, I’m sure.

The Capitals came back, though. An ill-advised pass in the Pens defensive zone led to an immediate turnover by T.J. Oshie, who fired a little chip shot right past the glove of Murray. He then tied the game moments later on a beautiful deflection. Neither of these goals were Murray’s fault. He looked poised, but the defense collapsed and made some big mistakes at the end of the game.

Everything was fine, though, because everyone knows that 3 vs. 3 overtime gives the Penguins a huge advantage, as they can put out the stars and let them work over whatever their opponent wants to put out. Crosby worked hard behind the net and drew a slashing penalty, which gave the Pens a fourth man to work with against the Capitals’ 3. After that, it was over. Kessel passed to Letang at the point, Letang sent it over to Malkin who looked ready to one-time it past Holtby but elected to pass it back to Letang instead, who ripped the one-timer and sent everyone home happy.

The Pens looked sloppy on opening night, but they’ve shown that their offense can still score and that they can roll their lines significantly better than last season. Watch out, folks. The Penguins are back.