PENS GAME #1: PENGUINS VS. CAPITALS
Pittsburgh Penguins (0-0) vs. Washington Capitals (1-0) at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA at 7PM (EST)
The Pens open the 2018-19 NHL season at home tonight against their now Cup-having arch nemesis Washington Capitals, marking a new beginning not only for the black and gold but also for the rivalry of these two teams.
They are no longer the Cup-less, hapless Caps. And while they still have a long ways to go (or 4 long ways to be accurate) to be on the Penguins' championship level, this new status revs up the rivalry to a new height.
Here are some thoughts about this match-up and what might be in store during tonight's game...
PENS TALKING POINTS
KEY TOPICS RELATED TO THIS GAME
The New Era Has Arrived
THE PENS FUTURE IS ALREADY HERE
You may not have noticed the shift in Pens system but some monumental core demographic movements are underway. The much-discussed and worried over future, post-Crosby generation of Penguins is indeed already here. And this year's opening night line-up illustrates this emphatically. In all the Pens have eight 25-years-old and under, future key pieces on the roster to start 2018-19.
Leading the way in this demographic are established Cup-winning stars Matt Murray (24), Olli Maatta (24), and Jake Guentzel (23). That crowd is rounded out by Daniel Sprong (21), Juuso Riikola (24), Jamie Oleksiak (25), Dominik Simon (24), and reserve player Tristan Jarry (23). You can also add in Zach Aston-Reese at age 24, who is currently assigned to the minor leagues while trying to rebound from injury, but carved out a regular role for himself in the NHL last year. A role which he's expect to regain in the near future to join the rest of this group. Taking the number of under-25s expected to fill the roster eventually to a total of 9.
The Penguins future is right here, present and accounted for. And the advantage of having these players supplemented by even younger well regarded prospects in the system like Jordy Bellerive and Calen Addison plus future acquisitions and draft picks, only makes the outlook on the far horizon appear, well, pretty golden.
The Pens Face A Tough Opener
AN OPENING GAME WITH THE CUP-HIGH CAPS IS NO "GIMME"
The Capitals are coming off of the emotional high of finally raising an actual real banner of worth last night during their home opener vs. the Bruins. They did not disappoint the D.C. crowd and came flying out of the gate to start the year by completely thumping Boston 7-0. Washington's stars are already humming as well, Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie each have a goal on the brand new season, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a frequent stymieing player vs. the Penguins, already has 2 goals.
Washington has also faced virtually no turnover in their Cup-winning roster. This is essentially the exact same team that shut down the Pens' playoffs hopes last spring. Their biggest loss over the summer wasn't even on the ice at all, but coach Barry Trotz leaving for a higher paying gig with the Islanders. In fact the "biggest" player lost to free agency for the Caps was Jay Beagle. Yes, just Jay Beagle. The fourth line Center in the Capitals' championship-winning game lines.
The Caps also tend to go low when they face emotional hurdles. They turn into a team of Tom Wilsons and won't be particularly happy about Tom's current suspension for his latest of what seem to been ad infinitum targeted head hits. This is true especially against the Penguins, a team they have a particular inferiority complex towards. Wilson is often encouraged to be at his worst when the Pens are on ice opposing him and without him, Ovechkin, Oshie, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen will likely take an increased attention towards targeted physicality. The Penguins younger players will be especially prone, as D.C. knows the "stars" of the Pens are usually very vigilant around their team after years of run-ins as experience. The newer Penguins don't have the same kind of heightened alertness conditioned into them for playing the Caps.
The Pens are already a game behind the Washington, in the schedule as well. As I mentioned above. And historically these Crosby-Malkin era teams are slower starters. While the Capitals typically come out fast in October in their corresponding "Ovechkin era".
Pittsburgh is also going through the growing pains associated with this new era of Cup-winning veterans meshing with newer team acquisitions as players come and go with the seasons. As the variation in the Pens' pre-season results has shown, the team is still trying to find just the right mix in the lines and personnel. And they face the additional awkwardness of these key younger players like Sprong and Simon taking on greater roles at the NHL level as they try to become roster full-timers.
POSITIVES IN THE PENGUINS FAVOR
The most beneficial aspect the Pens have going for them is finally having a full off-season of rest, their first in 3 years. The team's super stars were absolutely spent during the end of the 2017-18 playoffs and it hurt the team singularly more than any other factor. Most key, Kris Letang, is rested, healthy, and ready to return to form leading the defense. This is a presence the Penguins desperately missed as he struggled somewhat on-ice last season.
The Penguins also have new young legs added to the line-up in Simon, Sprong, and Riikola. They bring fresh energy that will hopefully boost the entire locker-room.
And Derick Brassard has also finally undergone a proper, full-length introduction to the team in his first Pens training camp. This brings him fully up to speed on the systems, plays, teammates, and coaches' styles, things he seemed utterly lost without when joining the Penguins late in the year last season.
The Caps' master tactician coach Barry Trotz is gone too. And the Penguins have the book on new Washington coach Todd Reirden from his long stint as a assistant coach in Pittsburgh. A period in which he worked closely with many current Pens players, and instructed them on his favorite techniques as the architect for the defense and power-plays.
The one-man natural disaster on ice Tom Wilson is suspended. Leaving the Penguins a little safer as no one else in the league is any match for his level of reckless, unhinged, and sheer idiotic level of dangerous hits and dirty play.
The Capitals are on the 2nd night of back-to-back games to open the season after an extremely short off-season for them. A uniquely un-advantageous schedule for the beginning of a season, when teams are more susceptible to fatigue and still trying to get back into the swing of regular season competition and playing speed.
One Man To Win It
THE PENS MAY NEED 1 DIFFERENCE MAKER TO TURN THE TIDE
With such a even amount of pros and cons to this match-up, and considering the closeness of the series between these two teams in their spring playoff series, a Penguins' win tonight could come down to just one man stealing the show with a outstanding individual performance.
But who will be the difference maker? The usual suspects in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, or Jake Guentzel?
Or maybe Kris Letang looking to kick off his comeback season with a splash? Perhaps the now fully initiated Derick Brassard trying to make a big statement that he will be a impact player with his new team?
Or could we see one of the young and hungry newer pros like Daniel Sprong or Juuso Riikola grab the limelight in trying to prove they belong and are ready to stay in the NHL?
Lots of exciting possibilities await for tonight, in what should mark the start of a very interesting time for the Penguins franchise.
EXTRA MISC. THOUGHTS & INFO
*Brian Dumoulin is the only line-up question mark tonight, he's a game-time decision with a day-to-day injury. He did not take the optional morning skate. The odds seems split on whether he plays according to Pens beat reporters, leaning towards the chance he'll go for it considering he feels good per Coach Sullivan, and it of course is opening night.
*The late game on national cable TV tonight is the Philadelphia Flyers vs. the Vegas Golden Knights at 10PM (EST) on NBCSN. So you can take in the Pens opener then catch the red-eye broadcast where our best non-Penguin buddy Marc-Andre Fleury gets to whup up on the Flyers just like old times!
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