Five things we learned as the Penguins conquered Canada
Before the Pittsburgh Penguins left for a long Canadian road trip, a thought crossed winger Patric Hornqvist’s mind.
The team wasn’t off to a good start. A 2-1-2 record was decent enough, but a commitment to playing sound, fundamental hockey had yet to emerge on a consistent basis.
What they needed, Hornqvist thought, was to get away.
“I think this is the best road-trip timing I’ve ever been part of,” Hornqvist said. “We’re struggling. Now it’s just us for 12 days. We’re going to have some fun on the rink and off the rink and start to know each other and start to play for each other. I think it will be great for us.”
Hornqvist couldn’t have been more right.
The Penguins largely dominated in stops in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, going 4-0 and outscoring opponents 23-6.
Now they’re 6-1-2, and going by points percentage (.778) and goal differential (plus-14), they’re the top team in the league through Saturday night’s games.
Here’s a look at five things we’ve learned from a trip-ending 5-0 victory in Vancouver.
1. Starring roles
No matter how disjointed the Penguins looked in the first five games of the season, they always had an ace in the hole. Some of the most talented players in the world reside on their roster, and they showed what they can do on the Canadian trip.
Evgeni Malkin had two goals and an assist in Vancouver. He’s averaging two points per game this season, which leads the league.
Sidney Crosby also scored twice on Saturday night. He started the trip with no goals for the season and finished it with five.
Phil Kessel had three goals and six points on the trip. Hornqvist scored four times. Kris Letang was a plus-8.
Their Canadian foes just couldn’t keep up.
2. Defensive strides
For the Penguins to have long-term success, the second and third defense pairs are going to need to solidify. They took steps in that direction in Canada.
When Olli Maatta was on the ice at even strength, the Penguins outscored their opponents, 7-1. Jamie Oleksiak had two goals in Edmonton, joined the rush regularly and was a plus-9 on the trip. Jack Johnson scored his first goal in Calgary and delivered 10 hits in three games in Western Canada.
3. Goalie push
The first time the Penguins met Vancouver this season, goalie Casey DeSmith blamed himself for the Brock Boeser overtime goal that gave the Canucks the win.
He got his revenge Saturday night, pitching a 29-save shutout.
For whatever reason, starter Matt Murray seems to perform better when he’s being pushed by his backup. DeSmith and his .939 save percentage are pushing Murray plenty.
4. Young forwards emerging
At times during the first seven games of the season, coach Mike Sullivan dramatically cut the ice time of young forwards Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon late in games, preferring to go with forwards he trusted more instead.
That tide started to turn in Western Canada.
Sprong played a season-high 11 minutes, 46 seconds Saturday night. Simon averaged 12 minutes per game in Calgary and Vancouver.
Sprong had a highlight-reel assist to set up a Malkin goal in the third period. Simon made a nifty pass to set up a Crosby goal and run his point streak to three games.
Sullivan still has some work ahead of him when it comes to settling on consistent line combinations, but as long as the problems are caused by having too many players performing well than too few, it’s a good problem to have.
5. Dynamic duo
One line combination Sullivan won’t have to think much about is the pairing of Malkin and Kessel.
When they’re been on the ice together this season, the Penguins have outscored their opponents, 17-6.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.