This was a tale of two teams: one that has had a few years to further refine itself after a huge Stanley Cup victory several seasons ago, dealing with the loss of two superstars due to injury yet still playing an incredibly successful game night in and night out; the other an amalgam of new faces and styles, still finding its way and forming that always-valuable chemistry among the roster.
After a solid opening night win, the Panthers rolled into Pittsburgh to face a Penguins team that would be playing its fourth game in six nights, but fatigue didn't matter as the Pens dropped Florida 4-2. The Panthers, who played a very disciplined and tight game against the New York Islanders on Saturday, looked quite different as they struggled to maintain possession and turned the puck over on a very regular basis. It's clear there's still plenty to work on for the Cats, but 80 games remain, with lots of time to fix the messy play folks saw on Tuesday night.
The Pens came in tired, but certainly didn't look like it. The period started out with a lot of energy from both squads with a lot of fast skating, end-to-end action and tenacious play on the puck. The Panthers got the first power play but were unable to score as Pittsburgh's penalty kill, tops in the NHL last season, continued its success. After a fair amount of pressure by the Penguins, the Cats committed a penalty with Ryan Carter heading to the box, but were able to kill it off. The Panthers then rebounded a bit with some puck possession time, but had a lot of trouble getting plays off in the offensive zone. Against tougher competition like Pittsburgh, it's clear that the Panthers still need time to get used to each other and start to develop more offensive chemistry. There's still a lot of "throw it on net, hope for the best," and the passing in the zone was less effective than the last game against the New York Islanders. Shortly after, the Pens struck first, with Pascal Dupuis hammering away at Jose Theodore without much help. Rookie Erik Gudbranson and defensive partner Ed Jovanovski were caught out of position and against a well-coached and very deep squad like Pittsburgh, you don't want to be out of position. After allowing the first goal, the Cats were back on their heels a bit, but nearly scored as Stephen Weiss had a backhand on an empty net but shanked it and didn't get it elevated, allowing Fleury to make a nice save. Tomas Fleischmann took a late penalty for hooking, giving the Pens a second powerplay chance, but the Panthers were able to clear it a few times and burn the penalty off. Both teams finished with 12 shots apiece for the frame, but the Panthers got schooled in the faceoff circle, 13-5.
Both teams came out at about the same intensity level, but the Panthers got called on a relatively weak boarding call against Jason Garrison early in the period. The Pens had some good puck possession but were unable to convert. The Cats PK still looks as solid as last year, and we all know how important the special teams will be for this team's success this season. After that, the Panthers didn't register much in the way of shots, as the Pens were able to use their system to keep the Panthers from anything but perimeter shots that were routine saves for Fleury. At around 8:30 left in the period, the Penguins struck again, with Matt Cooke dumping a shot past Theodore off a great feed from Joe Vitale. Shortly after a commercial break, Kevin Dineen was interviewed about the Panthers offensive pressure, saying, "We're trying to take the cute out of it, and put pucks at the net." No more than 15 seconds later did the Panthers do just that, with Marcel Goc getting his first of the year after a great rush up ice by Jack Skille. Shortly after, the Panthers got back on the man advantage with Cooke taking an interference call, and promptly allowed the Penguins to score a terrible shorthanded goal. A bad shift by Gudbranson and Jovanovski was followed up by a very bad turnover by Fleischmann, and after pinballing around a bit the puck ended up in the Panther net. Dineen and assistant coach Craig Ramsay will have a field day with that film. The Panthers got one last powerplay in the period, but were unable to convert and went into the third with a two goal deficit.
The Cats started the third period with some bad turnovers, which led to a bad tripping penalty by Dmitry Kulikov taking down Jordan Staal. The Panthers were able to kill off the penalty effectively and followed up with a quick tally by Fleischmann off a great point shot by Gudbranson and a nifty backhand feed by Weiss. This was all thanks to a faceoff win in the defensive zone by Weiss after the Penguins waited too long to line up. The play went back and forth again for most of the period until Staal muscled his way in to create a scoring chance, and caught the Panthers forwards flat-footed, as the rebound lay in the crease and no one picked up a streaking James Neal who hammered home the puck. The Cats then immediately got a powerplay but were unable to convert, and Pittsburgh's excellent neutral zone play shut the Panthers down the rest of the way. Theodore was pulled late in the game during the final Panthers powerplay with just under two minutes to go, but it didn't matter as the Penguins held on until the final horn.
- The Panthers checking line of Shawn Matthias, Matt Bradley and Ryan Carter looked good throughout the game. It's clear that Dineen will be comfortable rolling four lines all season if that line continues it's play.
- Through two games, Sean Bergenheim looks tentative and a bit out of place. If his mediocre play continues, you may see Evgeni Dadonov in his place.
- The powerplay was ineffective tonight, and although it's only the second game, the coaching staff has to find a way to make sure the chances the Panthers get make a difference on the score sheet. Had the Cats been able to convert on even one man advantage, this would have been a very different game.
- The Panthers clearly had to rise their play to their opponent if they wanted a shot to win this game, as the Penguins are a very talented and deep team (even without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik). There were very long stretches of this game where the Cats simply couldn't compete with the long-developing chemistry of the Penguins. That said, it's only the second game, so it's a bit early to be concerned.
- I have never watched a came where the Panthers turned the puck over as much as they did in this game. For a team that is interested in playing a puck possession game, they will need to drastically reduce those to make that game work for them.
- If I ever hit the lottery and want to get in shape, I'm calling the strength and conditioning coach for the Penguins. For playing four games in six nights, they sure looked peppy.
- Gudbranson had some real growing pains in this game. He looked nervous and was a step behind the Penguins forwards early on. After his shaky powerplay shift in the second period, Dineen cut back his ice time. He did pick it up in the third period though. It's good to remember that it's his second pro game against a very good team, and he's still finding his game in the NHL.
- The Cats offense struggled to get quality scoring chances, taking lots of perimeter shots on Fleury throughout. It seems the breakouts and forecheck may need more time to develop, as well as timing. There were a lot of missed passes... a LOT.
- Can someone explain to me how Mike Milbury is still involved with hockey? He was a terrible GM, he is god-awful on TV, and he turns an otherwise great Versus broadcast into something that makes you cringe. Hockey fans tune him out about as fast as people change the channel during the Super Bowl halftime show. That is, unless you like wardrobe malfunctions.
- Kulikov had a rough game. It seemed like for every good play he made, he turned the puck over shortly thereafter. Hopefully he can turn it around; let's not forget Keaton Ellerby is waiting in the wings.
- Brian Englomb, where's the mane? Father time has robbed us of one of the great heads of hair left in hockey. A moment of silence, please.
- We saw this a lot last year, and we're already seeing it again: players aren't picking up a man during the transition game. Campbell, Kulikov, Kris Versteeg and a couple others were caught gliding back or flat footed as the very quick and very dangerous Pittsburgh transition game repeatedly created quality chances. Can't have that.
As always, you can check out our pals at PensBurgh for additional coverage. Next up: Saturday, October 15 is the Panthers home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we have the hottest ticket in the house, as we'll be watching live from the LBC Luxury Suite! A couple tickets still remain; if you're interested, follow the link to learn how to get in on the shindig. Goodnight folks!