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Penguins notebook: Early-season schedule helps dictate Mike Sullivan's goalie decisions

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, 9:54 p.m.
Penguins goalie Antti Niemi (31) blocks a shot as defenseman Olli Maatta (3) and Chicago Blackhawks right wing Richard Panik (14) vie for the puck during the first period Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chicago.
Penguins goalie Antti Niemi (31) blocks a shot as defenseman Olli Maatta (3) and Chicago Blackhawks right wing Richard Panik (14) vie for the puck during the first period Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chicago.
Penguins goalie Antti Niemi wipes his face during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chicago.
Penguins goalie Antti Niemi wipes his face during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Last season, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was in an unusual position when he made goaltending decisions.

When he was splitting up playing time between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, he was dealing with a pair of players who had been his team's No. 1 goaltender very recently.

Neither goaltender was known to be anything close to a prima donna, but still, Sullivan had to strike a delicate balance at times.

The situation is different this season, largely because Antti Niemi, who made his Penguins debut Thursday night in Chicago, knew what he was getting into when he signed with the team in July. Murray's the No. 1, and everybody knows it.

But even if Sullivan was in a position where he had to worry about massaging egos, his goaltending decisions would be dictated by another factor in the early part of this season: the schedule.

By Thanksgiving weekend, the Penguins will have played six sets of back-to-back games and made a five-game swing through Minnesota and Western Canada.

“I think we've got a fairly decent workload coming out of the gates,” Sullivan said. “Both of them are going to see some work. I think it's important for us to make sure we don't overtax any one of them to the point that we get diminishing returns.”

And for the record, in a phrase that has been a regular part of his vernacular ever since he joined the Penguins, yes, Sullivan believes he still has two No. 1 goaltenders.

“Just like last year, we feel like we have two, solid, bona fide No. 1 goaltenders,” he said. “I think we're fortunate to have the depth at the position that we have.”

Niemi gave up four goals on 13 shots in the first period against Chicago before being pulled.

Different kind of rival

Between Philadelphia, Columbus and Washington, the Penguins have a full dance card when it comes to rivalries. Plus, it's hard for a lot of bad blood to develop between teams that face off only twice a season and play in different conferences.

So the dynamic between the Penguins and Blackhawks probably deserves to be described by a term other than “rivalry.” A race to greatness, perhaps? After all, they each have won the Stanley Cup three times in the last nine years.

“I think they're both held in high regard for deserving reasons,” Sullivan said. “They've accomplished a lot in the last decade or so in hockey. They're two organizations that pride themselves on doing things the right way. I think the styles of play are very similar. Every time we play the Hawks, it's always an exciting game. Both Pittsburgh and the Hawks are a speed, skilled team.”

Letang's minutes

Playing his first game since Feb. 21 after April neck surgery, Kris Letang led all players in Wednesday's season opener with 26 minutes of ice time. Expect more of the same moving forward, Sullivan said.

“You can't seem to wear him out,” Sullivan said. “He's such a fit guy. He's an efficient skater. We're fortunate to have him. There aren't too many guys who can log those kind of minutes night-in and night-out throughout the league, and he's one of them that can do it.”

Back to juniors

Training camp standout Sam Miletic will head back to the London Knights to continue his development path with an overage season in junior hockey. Miletic, who scored 37 goals for London last year, signed an entry-level contract with the Penguins last month.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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