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Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Thoughts on the Penguins' season opener

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, 12:36 a.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby jumps and has an Evgeni Malkin shot hit off his skate in front of Blues goaltender Jake Allen seconds later Crosby put the rebound in for a third-period goal Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby jumps and has an Evgeni Malkin shot hit off his skate in front of Blues goaltender Jake Allen seconds later Crosby put the rebound in for a third-period goal Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

1. It was appropriate that the loudest cheers in the Penguins' Stanley Cup championship banner raising, as Trib beat writer Jonathan Bombulie observed , were reserved for the franchise cornerstones.

But the most poignant moment might have belonged to the man behind the bench.

The ceremony had a poetic pause when the spotlight shined on Mike Sullivan, allowing the Penguins coach to smile and enjoy the standing ovation he received as fans at PPG Paints Arena sprung to their feet.

Sullivan was unflappable during the back-to-back Cup runs, sticking to his messages to “Just Play” and “Play the Right Way,” the latter of which was inscribed inside the Penguins' championship rings. Perhaps more than any of his players, Sullivan seemed enthused about the culmination of one Cup run and the start of another.

“My hope is that these different experiences that we're able to enjoy here over the last week or so will fuel our passion to want to do it again,” Sullivan said Tuesday morning at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “I think it should inspire us to watch ourselves, with some of the highlight reels that they watched last night and the banner raising. For me, it's a real remembrance that it's all worth it. All the sacrifice and the commitment that you make in order to try to reach the ultimate goal is worth it.”

2. Perhaps that's an appropriate reminder for all of us who have followed the Penguins in winning three Cup championships in a nine-year span, becoming not only the first NHL club in 19 years to win back-to-back titles but the first in the league's salary-cap era and have a chance for the first three-peat since the New York Islanders won four from 1980-83.

We're being spoiled by great hockey, so Sullivan's message is instructive.

Enjoy every hockey night in Pittsburgh.

And have an appreciation for the sacrifice and commitment it takes to reach the ultimate goal.

The Penguins certainly have had their share of banner moments .

3. What remains the most amazing thing about the Penguins' Cup run is that they did it without Kris Letang, as one of the game's best defensemen saw his 2017 season end with neck surgery in April.

So it was something to see Letang back on the ice, as if he never missed a beat. Letang played a team-high 26 minutes, 5 seconds of ice time and finished a minus-2, with five giveaways. But he played better than his statistics showed.

For as much credit as Letang gets for starting the rush out of the defensive end, he doesn't get enough for his offensive chemistry with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It's akin to having an extra forward, an elite one at that.

“It's a special night. The opening's always special,” Letang said. “To be able to come back from the injury and that much time without playing, it's going to be special.”

Letang anticipated a boost of adrenaline from the excitement of the Cup banner ceremony.

“Obviously, a lot of emotion is going to be in play,” Letang said. “I'm just glad to be playing. I'm glad to be out there with my teammates and share this moment with them.”

Speaking of poetic pauses, you had to hold your breath when Letang fired a shot from the high slot on his first shift. It went off the shoulder of St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen.

If Letang had scored, the crowd have blown the roof off the barn.

4. The final seven minutes, 30 seconds of regulation had the feel of playoff hockey.

The Penguins trailed St. Louis, 4-2, when Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo took a tripping penalty that was followed by center Brayden Schenn getting called for closing his hand on the puck.

Suddenly, the Penguins had a two-man advantage and a renewed energy.

Evgeni Malkin hit one off the crossbar. Phil Kessel just missed an open net. But the Blues caved to the pressure when Crosby was credited with rebounding Malkin's shot from the right circle at 13:46 to cut it to 4-3. Less than a minute later, Greg McKegg slid a pass through the slot to Conor Sheary, who did a Crosby imitation by dropping to one knee from the right circle and dribbling a shot past Allen for the tying goal at 14:40.

McKegg had a strong debut as the Penguins' third-line center — their biggest storyline of the off-season, after losing Nick Bonino to Nashville in free agency — with the assist and by winning 76 percent (13 of 17) of his faceoffs.

5. My column for Thursday's editions of the Tribune-Review focused on the spotlight shining on Penguins goaltender Matt Murray , who has the unique distinction of being in net for a pair of Cup-clinching victories in his rookie year before ever starting his first NHL opener.

Murray stopped 29 shots, including 12 in the second period, but gave up the winning goal to Alex Pietrangelo at 1:15 of overtime in the 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Blues. Pietrangelo used Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz as a screen, and Murray took blame for finding the puck too late, only after it glanced off his arm.

“I thought he made some big saves for us at key times,” Sullivan said, “but he obviously would like to have some (goals) back.”

Murray, however, was adamant that the Penguins “deserved to win that one.”

Who are we to argue?

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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