In recent times a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins was considered a strong win against 1 of the NHL’s elite teams. Despite seeing the familiar faces/numbers, right now it is simply a win against another struggling team. The Pens entered the game on a 3-game losing streak since a coaching change following a 1-3-1 stretch just prior. As funny as it sounds to say it, the December 19 version of the Pittsburgh Penguins is not in much different of a place than the Carolina Hurricanes. The key difference is that they did not expect to be here.
So Saturday set up as a battle of 2 desperate teams trying to play their way into the 2015-16 season. Both played and lost on Friday, and both needed the win.
The game featured the NHL debut of Matthew Murray in the Penguins net. The Canes took advantage of the rookie early. Capitalizing on 4 first period power plays, the Canes climbed out to a 2-0 lead. First, Jordan Staal squeaked a goal through the arm and body, and then John-Michael Liles beat him from a ways out on a partial deflection. The Canes exited the first period with a 2-0 lead and a ton of momentum despite being outshot.
The Penguins were probably the better team for the rest of the game, but the Hurricanes competed incredibly hard, minimized high end chances even when they were in trouble and relied on Cam Ward when all else failed. Ward followed up a respectable reentry to the lineup on Friday with an even better effort on Saturday. Whereas the Florida game on Friday was light on volume and quality of shots, the Penguins mustered quite a push for the second two-thirds of the game. Ward’s 37 saves on 38 shots against were the difference in the game.
Amidst a number of positive stories in a hard-fought win, 1 thing really stands out for me. With the back-to-back, Bill Peters and Steve Smith shuffled the pairings on the back end. The result was a second pairing that bumped Jaccob Slavin up to play with Ron Hainsey against some the NHL’s elite talents (even if struggling a bit right now). Slavin played a season-high 18:20 with a huge chunk of that against Evgeni Malkin’s line. Slavin did not magically shut Malkin down (#71 had a good night), but he emerged unscathed. (Malkin’s goal came on the power play without Slavin on the ice.) At least for 1 game Jaccob Slavin vaulted to another level and looked pretty comfortable in the process despite being a 21-year old with only 12 games of NHL experience. It will be interesting to watch his path forward, but this game has the makings of a huge confidence-builder to pushes him up to another level in his development quickly.
A few other player and other notes:
Again, he was the story of the game for me among many good choices simply because it was another flash forward to the future in a good way and also in a way that suggests this future is not too far away.
In a game in which he was fairly quiet offensively and did not get on the score sheet, he played a really strong game. The Canes won their fair share of small battles and made it difficult for the Pens to muster real good scoring chances even when they controlled play. Jeff Skinner did his part in this.
That is incredibly important. Very recently, Jeff Skinner won some points in the standings through sheer offense. That is not new. He has done that multiple times in the past. Then on a slower night offensively, he was still a break even player who made plays. That is the part of his game that was lacking in the past. He was either scoring or a minus player on the night, so games like Saturday when he does not light it up offensively but still plays well are actually more telling about his development as an all-around player than his recent good nights on the score sheet.
He was fine in Friday’s loss allowing only 1 goal, but it was a light night. On Saturday, he was asked to do much more to get a win and answered the call.
While Jaccob Slavin might have been the story of the game, Jordan Staal has a strong case for player of the game. His early goal was obviously important on a night that saw only 3 goals. He and his line were the leaders for a hard-fought effort to make 2 goals stand up and make it incredibly for Pittsburgh to draw even despite controlling play in the third period.
Good for him scoring his first goal of the season. In the D shuffle, Liles found himself in the top pairing with Justin Faulk. He has quietly been part of the glue holding the young defense together. He did a wonderful job helping Brett Pesce settle into the NHL in a top 4 slot and has just generally been solid.
Noah Hanifin/Brett Pesce
It was interesting to watch this pair adjust to playing together. They got tangled up a few times trying to move the puck from their own end I think partly due to differing styles. Pesce’s style of play that fit well with veteran John-Michael Liles is built from a foundation of spacing and puck support to always have across passes available to move the puck out of the defensive zone as a 2-man unit. Hanifin is a bit looser and more prone to use whatever ice is needed to skate. There were multiple times when Hanifin cut into Pesce’s space which left Pesce unsure where to go and how to help support the puck. Interestingly, Hanifin and Slavin seemed to mesh pretty well with very little ice time. The point is not to declare certain styles of play right or wrong but rather is something interesting to watch unfold as we see different combinations and begin work to figure out who plays with who going forward. Short-term, I will be curious to see how Hanifin and Pesce adjust to each other with a few games ice time together if they get it, and I will also be curious to watch Slavin play more minutes in a less protected role in the top 4. I will be curious to see if Peters rides Saturday’s D pairings forward or if that was a 1-game trial.
Up next is a challenging home match up against the Washington Capitals on Monday before 4 days off for Christmas break.