The Boys Are Back: Analysis of Pre-Season Games 1&2

Over the past two days I’ve been privileged to make the road trip to Columbus to attend the Pens’ first preseason game as well as attend the Pens/Detroit game this evening. Despite dropping both games, there are plenty of positives to take out of the past two days. In my opinion the positives outweigh the negatives. Although there are areas for improvement, no one should be concerned. So here’s my first post of the season (well, preseason anyway) where I’ll break down what I observed over the past two days.

After two days of hockey I have about a page and a half of notes. Note: Yes I take notes at hockey games. Judge me. Despite both games resulting in a loss, be it one in overtime, the majority of my notes are positive. If you kept up with my posts from last season I’ll be doing the same format as most of last year’s posts. I’ll go over what we did well, what we didn’t do so well, and what we can do to improve in those areas that weren’t so great. So here we go. First post of the 2013-2014 season.

The Good Stuff
Starting with the Columbus game there are a lot of positives to take away. The most notable is the play of the second line, especially Beau Bennett. If there was any question of whether or not Bennett could play with the big boys on one of the top two lines there isn’t anymore. The kid’s ready to make an impact and he did just that Sunday night. While I could watch Neal’s wrist shot on repeat for hours on end, the goal was the result of a great play by Beau at the blue line. He stepped up on the puck carrier, forced the turnover, and despite being in an awkward position, was able to get the puck through to set up Neal for the score just forty-seven seconds in. Beau was a presence on the ice the entire night, both with his vision on the ice that makes him an effective passer and some solid backchecking and physicality. Moving on from Beau to the other winger on the line (Can I call it the firing line, or is that reserved for when Kunitz is on the left wing?), I was also impressed with James Neal. He opened the game with his signature wrister and was an offensive threat every time he stepped on the ice, but what impressed me the most about Neal was his conditioning. He’s in the best shape of his life right now and that can be scary to opponents. It’s also a great contrast to his play in the Boston series. While none of the forwards played well that series, Neal’s skating in particular stood out to me, and not in a good way. Several times during the series against the Bruins I watched Neal taking wider, slower turns which is a result of a lack of conditioning. He was a completely different skater Sunday night. He was quick on his feet and that will be a great asset this season. Neal’s a pretty big guy at 6’2 with his build. Add in speed and agility and you’ve got yourself a pretty lethal threat. I don’t see any reason to play the “second” line again this preseason. One more game maximum. You can rest them. They’re ready.

Other offensive standouts were Chuck Kobasew and Tom Kuhnhackl. With two goals, Kobasew was the star of the stat sheet. I doubt we’ll see Kobasew see time with the team this season, after all he’s here on a professional tryout, so I won’t get too excited, but he gave a great effort and it’s nice to know we have him in the system if we need him. Minus the experience, it is a similar situation with Kuhnhackl. I don’t expect him to get called up this year, but he has been developing into a nice player. Not to mention it’s fun to listen to opposing team’s announcers try to pronounce his game. The in-house announcer in Columbus struggled greatly. There was an audible pause between his first and last name as he tried to plan out the pronunciation. He failed.

Dustin Jeffrey also had a solid game (insert press box joke here). He notched a goal and was strong on the puck all night long. He’s gritty, which is something the Pens lack in their bottom six forwards. Jokinen and Sutter are great, but they’re not exactly a bunch of tough and rugged guys to go up against. Jeffrey could see time on the bottom two lines, and he seems to be getting off to a good start. And if you recall last season, he was effective in the limited number of games he played.

Now to the defense. Obvious standout was Scott Harrington. Drafted in the second round in 2011, he seems to be about ready for the NHL. That’s not to say he’ll be called up at all. The Pens have depth, especially in prospects, at defense, and for now I think he’s still just outside the top 7. The Pens first round pick in 2012, Derrick Pouliot, also stood out. He still needs to clean up some areas of his game but he could eventually be the point man on the power play. By next year he could be NHL-ready as well.

Final thoughts: Fleury was alright. He wasn’t great, but there wasn’t a breakdown. Giving up two goals in two periods with four AHL defensemen in front of you isn’t bad. Also, the Pens outshot Columbus by a large margin. Wins will come.

Now onto the Detroit game, in which the Pens also outshot their opponent. There are less positives in this one that Sunday’s game, but my gosh Olli Maatta. Best Penguin on the ice by far. All night long he took the right angles on his opponent, worked hard for the puck, was always in position, and handled the puck well. He could start in the regular season opener and I wouldn’t be a bit concerned. I don’t think that will happen, but he has the skill level. Over the first two games, he’s been the best Penguins defenseman. Maatta was great tonight, but you can’t talk about him without talking about his defensive partner and Norris candidate, Kris Letang. Letang took a lot of criticism during last year’s playoffs, some deserved and some not so much. He had a solid game tonight. He controlled the puck well, and played solid defense. Him and Maatta were in position and didn’t give the opponents much. Letang will most likely be paired with Rob Scuderi during the regular season, but after tonight it will be interesting to see if they do in fact bring Maatta up and play him with Letang. The two certainly had chemistry.

Another standout was Jussi Jokinen, who in my opinion was the Pens best forward tonight. He played a great two-way game and was smart with the puck. He had solid backchecks and was one of the few people to go to the net. He’ll be a great skill guy to play on the third line this season, who could fill a role on the top two lines in case of injuries.

Hartzell and Megna also stood out. I had a great view of Hartzell from my seats and was very impressed with his constant composure and calmness. He took great angles against shooters and didn’t panic when traffic was in the crease. If you’re a fan of college hockey, you know this kid’s for real. Jayson Megna also played a solid game. While on the fourth line tonight, and not having a huge impact, he stood out to me for his tenacity on the forecheck. He was one of the few players who got pucks in deep. It was almost like having Joe Vitale back out there tonight.

In conclusion, the Pens second line should be dominant once again and the depth on defense among prospects could help them immensely.

The Not So Good Stuff
While there are lots of positives to take out of the first two games, there are negatives as well. After all, the first two games were also the first two losses, so obviously not everything is great.

In the Columbus game Tanner Glass was back to his usual self, and unlike last year where we had more depth in the bottom six forwards, we don’t have much of a choice but to play Glass. He was on the ice for two of the Blue Jackets goals, one of which was scored off his turnover. Another goal was scored while he was in the box. He’s a liability when he’s on the ice and I wish we would play Megna or Kobasew in his place, but I don’t see that as a reality given the coaching staff and what recent history has shown about who they choose to play. Additionally, Matt Niskanen also had a rough night. Trade rumors were already flying and Sunday’s game didn’t help his cause. After just discussing how solid the play of Maatta and Harrington has been, I see no reason to keep Niskanen, especially since the Pens are currently over the cap and Nisky has a cap hit of $2.3 M.

The penalty kill also wasn’t good, but it’s hard to judge as Scuderi was the only true penalty killer in the lineup. Other negatives of Sunday’s game were the result of the young guys who won’t see NHL ice this year, and personally, I’d rather discuss those who could be in the starting lineup in greater detail instead of nitpicking the play of seventh round picks not under contract.

In the Detroit game there were a few more concerns. Overall, the team just looked flat. Sure, it’s a meaningless preseason game but that’s still not what you want to see. My biggest problem with the Detroit game is the lack of forechecking pressure. The F1 wasn’t getting in deep enough and that led to the Pens having trouble getting set up in the offensive zone. This is probably why Megna stood out, because he was the only one in the F1 role that actually pressured consistently. We didn’t get pucks in deep and didn’t get guys to the net, which is huge against Detroit. Tonight Jimmy Howard reminded me of a better version of Ondrej Pavelec. He made the initial stops but consistently gave up rebounds. Fortunately for Detroit, the Pens never had people creating traffic in front of the net and following up initial shots.

Another downside was our powerplay. We had a very lazy power play with the great majority of shots coming from the halfwall. It didn’t take Detroit long to have it figured out. We didn’t send bodies to the net, and on the rare occasion that the shot didn’t come from the halfwall the Pens would try to force the puck into the high-slot which usually resulted in the puck simply being sticked away by the defender.

Another negative is the play of Brooks Orpik and Simon Despres. Orpik was caught out of position multiple times and wasn’t much of a presence. This was seen in the play of Paul Martin at some points as well. Despres might have been even worse, which is troubling because I expect him to play a bigger role this year. Turnovers, poor puck possession, and a lack of smart decisions hurt Despres’ game tonight.

How To Improve / Final Thoughts
A lot of the Pens preseason struggles should right themselves and it’s hard to judge without playing the full lineup. So far the Pens have lost the special teams battles, and it has resulted in them losing the game. Tonight the power play was a mess with its predictable halfwall shots. Having Malkin and Neal in the lineup gives the Pens more options on the power play; options that could allow Kunitz to get to the net where he is the most dangerous. I think Malkin could be an option for the halfwall which would let Sid and Kunitz work down low with Martin and Letang at the points. They could also use Malkin at the point and go with four forwards, which would allow Neal to be on the top power play unit as well. After all, Neal is a power play specialist. The penalty kill as well should also improve slightly. Against Columbus Scuderi was the only true penalty killer out there. Against Detroit they had Orpik and Adams in the lineup but were without Scuds. It will be interesting to see how it all works together. I’m not expecting a dominant penalty kill but it should certainly be better than what we’ve seen the past two days.

Also, the first line needs to step up, and I believe they will. Like most of the team, the Crosby/Dupuis/Kunitz line just looked flat. There were times this evening where they didn’t connect. However, I don’t think is a huge concern as we obviously know how well they can play together.

It will be a lot better to tell what the Pens need to improve on once they’ve all played together in the first week of the regular season. It’s hard to judge and fix a power play that isn’t even going to be the power play unit this year. I would like to see them be more aware on defense and possibly let the young guys get a chance. I think a Niskanen trade would benefit the team and get them under the cap and I also believe this is the last year for Orpik. His cap hit is too big and his level of play has declined.

As a final musing, I wish D’Agostini would have played tonight. Can’t blame the guy at all for not playing, as his wife was in labor, but I wish I could have seem him on the right wing alongside Sutter and Jokinen. That’s a potential third line and we’ve already seen the complete first and second lines.

In conclusion, overall the first two games have shown a lot of promise. We haven’t seen the complete team yet but the important parts of the team seem to have it together, mainly the second line. The second line seems dominant and we know the first line will be. The Pens really do have the potential to have the two best lines in hockey. Special teams need to improve, but is also hard to judge as we haven’t seen the complete power play and penalty kill units together yet. More pressure needs to be added on the forecheck and we need to get guys to the net. Despite having opened up the preseason with two losses, I think we’re in for a great year of hockey.

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