Empty Thoughts: Golden Knights 3, Penguins 0 | TribLIVE.com

Empty Thoughts: Golden Knights 3, Penguins 0

Seth Rorabaugh

Observations from the Penguins’ 3-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

First things first, Mike Sullivan declined to offer updates on defenseman Brian Dumoulin and forward Jared McCann.

Dumoulin participated in warmups but was a late scratch. And McCann, who missed Wednesday’s home game against the Colorado Avalanche due to an undisclosed ailment but played on Friday at home against the Dallas Stars, did not participate in warmups.

In their place were defenseman Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola, who once again played on the fourth line, just as he did Wednesday in McCann’s absence.

Johnson’s inclusion in the lineup was … interesting.

As the Penguins have been rotating him and Erik Gudbranson out the lineup, it was Johnson’s “turn” to be a scratch and as such, he had not arrived at the building by warmups.

“(Gudbranson) and I have had meetings with coach (Mike) Sullivan,” Johnson said. “He said he was going to try to get like a rotation going. We’ve got so many defensemen and he’s trying to get everyone involved. That’s kind of how we’re going about it. I had played a couple of games so going into it, I knew that tonight was going to be my night off and (Gudbranson) was going in. I was planning on it beforehand anyway.”

So, off site, Johnson found out he was going into the game, which was scheduled for 7:08 p.m., at the last minute, almost literally.

“I got a call from (assistant coach) Mark Recchi somewhere between 6:30 and 6:40 (p.m.),” Johnson said. “I said I’m on my way. He said, ‘Well might need you, (Dumoulin) is out. If you can get here and get dressed, we might need you tonight.”

Despite a considerably flawed and limited lineup, the Penguins played a pretty strong game. Outside of a long stretch of the second period where they had trouble getting the puck out of their zone (or even possession of the puck), they played a pretty disciplined game and had tons of quality chances.

The just couldn’t figure out their ex-goaltender.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves in one of his best performances ever on Pittsburgh ice and snapped the Penguins’ five-game winning streak.

“(We) don’t need to leave the rink with your head down,” said forward Zach Aston-Reese. “It sucks losing but there’s a right way to lose and a wrong way to lose. We competed and we battled. We had our chances but the bounces just didn’t go our way.”

What happened

The Penguins had a chance to take an early lead 5:48 into regulation on a power play. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang fed a pass from the left circle to the right circle where forward Patric Hornqvist had a great look at the net but Fleury displayed his trademark quickness and stretched to his right to deny Hornqvist of a goal with his right leg.

Vegas struck first at 16:12 of the second period. After goaltender Tristan Jarry failed to corral a dump-in behind his own net, rookie forward Cody Glass settled the puck in the left circle and quickly fed a pass to the right dot. As Johnson scrambled to get out from behind the cage, Golden Knights forward Paul Stastny fired a wrister past an out-of-place Jarry on the near side. Assists went to Glass and forward Max Pacioretty. That snapped a streak of six successful penalty kills for the Penguins.

The Penguins’ makeshift fourth line came close to scoring late in the second. With 31 seconds remaining in the period, Penguins forward Adam Johnson raced around the cage and emerged to the right of the crease, lifting a wrister which Fleury fended off. During the ensuing scramble, Golden Knights defensemen Shea Theodore and Nick Holden fended off Riikola and Penguins forward Josef Blandisi for the rebound and prevented them from getting a shot off as a scrambling Fleury lost pieces of his equipment, including his helmet. The Penguins protested claiming Fleury dislodged his helmet on purpose but officials did not take action.

On the ensuing faceoffs, Fleury again denied first-liners Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby on quality chances.

Fleury also got a little lucky. Aston-Reese nearly tied it at 6:41 of the third when he fired a wrister from the left circle which glanced off of Vegas defenseman Jon Merrill’s stick and fluttered over a kneeling Fleury only to bounce off the cross bar. As he usually does when a puck hits a post, Fleury rubbed the crossbar out of appreciation.

The Penguins had another chance to even the score at 9:50 of the third during a power play. Off a cross-ice pass, Riikola, low in the right circle, leaned down and directed a one-timer on net. Fleury stretched to his left and got a piece of the puck with the inside of his left elbow. The rebound fluttered to the left of the cage where Holden swatted it away with his left hand.

Another opportunity was denied by Vegas at 10:37 during another Penguins power play. After a Letang one-timer from the left half wall was blocked, Fleury and teammates fended off a mad scramble for the rebound led by Guentzel and Hornqvist.

Vegas secured the victory with a short-handed empty-net goal at 18:45 of the third period by forward William Karlsson. Former Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland had the only assist.

The Golden Knights added an insurance score at 19:08 of the third when Mark Stone airmailed a shot on an open cage which was not officially an empty net goal. Jarry had left crease again to give his team an extra attacker but had not reached the bench by the time the puck crossed the goal line. Officially, Jarry was charged with allowing a goal on the sequence but was hardly in position to stop it.

Statistically speaking

• The Penguins led in shots, 29-24.

• Stone led the game with five shots.

• Hornqvist and forward Dominik Kahun led the Penguins with four shots each.

• Letang led the game with 26:29 of ice time on 26 shifts.

• Defenseman Brayden McNabb led the Golden Knights with 22:10 of ice time on 24 shifts.

• The Golden Knights had a 31-28 edge in faceoffs (53 percent).

• Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek was 10 for 12 (83 percent).

• Crosby was 15 for 27 (56 percent).

• Engelland led the game with four blocked shots.

• Jack Johnson led the Penguins with two blocked shots.

Historically speaking

• This was the Golden Knights’ first ever shutout of the Penguins.

• Fleury recorded his 57th career shutout and first of the Penguins.

• Fleury became the fifth ex-Penguins goaltender to record a shutout against his former team:

• The only active franchises Fleury has never recorded a regular season shutout against are the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues.

• The Golden Knights recorded the 100th victory in franchise history.

• The Golden Knights remain one of two active franchises the Penguins have never recorded a shutout against. The Wild is the other.

Randomly speaking

• The Penguins actually began the game with Jack Johnson skating on the top pairing with Letang but that barely lasted two shifts. Rookie John Marino was moved from the third pair to the top pair. With two right-handed shots, Letang moved over to the left side where he has rarely played.

• Jack Johnson was then moved to the third pair along with Gudbranson.

• Riikola appeared to do better on the wing than he did on Wednesday. If nothing else, he seemed more comfortable. He logged 8:38 of ice time on 13 shifts including 1:22 on the power play. He also had three shots on four attempts and one blocked shot.

• The fourth line with Riikola, Adam Johnson and Joseph Blandisi created a few things and was used quite a bit until late in regulation when the Penguins pulled Jarry for an extra attacker.

• Granted, the bar is low, but Kahun may have played his best game since joining the Penguins. He logged 12:50 of ice time on 19 shifts and had four shots on seven attempts. He had a great cross-ice pass on the power play in the third period which set up Riikola’s quality chance which Fleury robbed.

• The Penguins’ power play was 0 for 4, including on three chances in the third period alone. But it wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. They generated a fair amount of chances but Golden Knights were fully committed to blocking or trying to block almost all of the Penguins’ shot attempts.

• Jarry looked sharp for the most part. His numbers would look a lot better from this game if it weren’t for that third goal which was virtually an empty-net score.

• Fleury still has it. His reaction time and agility in going from side to side in the crease has not waned as he approaches his mid-30s. He’ll give the Golden Knights a chance to compete once again this season assuming he stays healthy.

It’s hard to admit but Fleury clearly outperformed Matt Murray in this game.

Publicly speaking

• Sullivan suggested his team was the better of the two on the ice:

“I thought we were. I give our players a lot of credit. We’re competing hard out there. It’s a one-goal hockey game. We had a fair amount of chances. We couldn’t seem to find a way to put it in the net.”

• Crosby liked how the team played:

“We did some good things. Just didn’t find a way to score. We had some chances. Usually, they go in. (Fleury) made some good saves. We had a couple behind him that hit post and didn’t find a way to put it in.”

• Jarry really beat himself up over the first goal he allowed:

“It’s tough. It’s a one-goal game like that and I make one mistake. I think the other guy is going to pick it up and shoot it right away. Then they pass it back door. It’s tough when you make a mistake like that and its the one that cost you.”

• Even without a goal, Sullivan was happy with his power play:

“I loved the movement. There’s a lot to like about it. That’s three games in a row we don’t score but they’re doing everything right. We’re shooting the puck, we’re getting the puck to the net, we’re creating next-play opportunities, they’re executing on the entries. There’s a lot to like. They’re working hard and they’re executing. They had some real good chances. Even the second power-play (unit) had some real good chances. Juuso gets that great chance on that seam pass from (Dominik) Kahun. It was just one of those nights we had a hard time finding the back of the net.”

• Crosby gave the power play an endorsement:

“We had a couple of really good looks. (Schultz) had one in the slot. Jake (Guentzel) was off to the side of the net there for one. He had a chance in the slot there too that missed wide. That ends up being a big difference in the game if we get one there. It’s disappointing but we’ve been all around it the last few games, whether it’s posts or just missing by a little bit. That’s what it comes down to. You can get all those looks and sometimes it doesn’t go in. Other times, you get one and it goes in. That’s just the way it’s been going.”

• Sullivan was pleased with the method but not the result:

“We’re playing the game hard, we’re competing, we’re playing together, we’re giving ourselves a chance no matter who we play. This was a tough week for us. We played some really good hockey teams. We win a fair amount of them. We’re in the game tonight. As I said to the guys after the game, you can’t always control the outcome but you can control your effort, your attitude, your execution and from the coaching staff’s standpoint, that was all there.”

• Letang spoke about playing the left side:

“At the beginning, it was kind of odd. But it went pretty well. Johnny (Marino) is a good player. He can make a lot of plays. It was fine. A little bit different but it was fine.”

• Sullivan lauded Riikola’s play in his second game as a winger:

“He had a good game. We used the fourth line a fair amount up until the end when we were chasing the lead there. I thought Juuso had a good game. He’s good on the power play. He’s getting a little bit more comfortable at forward. That’s not something we want to make routine. But he skates so well and he has good hockey sense so we felt as though he was capable of playing there. I thought tonight might have been his best game there.”

Visually speaking

Game summary.

Event summary.

• Highlights:

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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