Penguins begin to ramp up preparations for season opener
With less than two weeks to go before the season opener, the tone of Penguins training camp took a turn Friday morning.
Players were split into two practice groups, with obvious NHL players on one rink and likely AHL players on the other.
After a first practice session lasting more than a half-hour, the ice was resurfaced and players reemerged to work on special teams.
Preparations are starting to get ramped up for Oct. 4 against the Washington Capitals.
“We don’t have a lot of practices between now and the opener,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re trying to maximize every opportunity to make sure that we work on the things we need to work on that give us the best chance to be the most ready for Game 1.”
Sullivan said he’s giving players a systematic refresher on the team’s playbook, though a lack of major roster turnover makes that process pretty simple.
“The good news is we have a familiar roster that’s familiar with how we’re trying to play and the details associated with our team concept,” he said.
Sullivan touted the value of special teams practice, even though the cast of characters on power-play unit that led the league with a 26.2 percent success rate last season remains unchanged.
The same quintet may have played together for a few years, but they haven’t played together in a few months, the coach said.
Captain Sidney Crosby agreed.
“You just gotta build those habits again,” he said. “It’s good that as a group we have confidence. We know we can create some things out there, but I think you have to build those habits back up. It starts here in camp but it will be a continuation of what we did last year and hopefully a few things that we can adjust and catch teams off guard a bit too.”
The line combinations and defense pairs Sullivan used in the NHL practice group at least resembled a lineup that could theoretically be used on opening night.
Crosby centered Jake Guentzel and Daniel Sprong on the top line and Carl Hagelin moved up to the left wing with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Derick Brassard centered Dominik Simon and Bryan Rust on the third line while Zach Aston-Reese, Matt Cullen and Patric Hornqvist skated on the fourth line.
Defense pairs saw Brian Dumoulin with Kris Letang, Olli Maatta with Jack Johnson and Jamie Oleksiak with Justin Schultz.
A few of those personnel decisions – Hornqvist on the fourth line, most notably – would raise some eyebrows, but Sullivan said it’s too early to start taking practice combinations seriously.
“I wouldn’t read into them quite yet,” Sullivan said. “We’re obviously trying to put certain players in positions where they can be at their best and trying to put combinations together that allow those players that we think are challenging for the roster to help them play at their best. We’re moving some guys around to see what sort of chemistry may evolve.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.