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Penguins hope they are back to normal with shutout of Predators

Defending champs look like old selves after loss to Blackhawks 'that stings'

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Can a team have its turning point of the season in early October? Can it find its sense of normalcy at the same time?

The Pittsburgh Penguins can't answer yes to either question. Not yet, at least. 

Maybe in a month or two they'll have better perspective on what losing 10-1 at the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday and coming home to defeat the Nashville Predators 4-0 on Saturday means in the grand scheme of this season. Maybe the swing will be forgotten. Maybe it won't be.

 

[RELATED: Murray, Penguins shut out Predators for first win]

 

What we know now is that, faced with their first big test of the season, the Penguins put up an A-plus performance that suggests, you know what, maybe we shouldn't write off the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions just yet.

"I think it's pretty early [to say it's turning point], but it's a good way to bounce back," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "You look at your team's ability to do that throughout the season, but this was really a good test of that coming off the last game. That's a game that stings. You think about that one more than just right after. The next day you come to the rink and you have to relive it on video. It's not a great feeling. I thought we responded the right way."

As hard as it might be to believe, the Penguins' take from their first two games, including their 5-4 overtime loss against the St. Louis Blues at home in their season opener Wednesday, is this:

"We just realized how hard it is to win in this League," defenseman Olli Maatta said.

Video: NSH@PIT: Malkin one-times home Kessel's dish

Sorry, but that's shocking coming from a player on a team that has won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons. The only possible explanation for how the Penguins could forget how difficult it is to win in the NHL is to think they took it for granted.

Maatta didn't disagree.

"That's the thing, you can't get too comfortable," he said. "I know we won the last two seasons but it's a new season, we start with zeros. It doesn't give you any advantage."

It took a visit from the team they defeated in the Stanley Cup Final last season to help them rediscover how good they can be when they play to their advantage.

The Penguins got to the puck first almost all game long. They won board battles. They held onto the puck down low. They put pucks on net instead of looking to pass first. They set the tone physically, not with bone-jarring hits but with enough force to make it matter. Goalie Matt Murray was cool as can be.

Video: NSH@PIT: Murray turns aside Aberg's partial break

"Every guy had a big effort," Murray said after his 26-save shutout. "We were playing in their face all night. We didn't give them any time and space. That's key for us. I don't think we gave them a chance. We were just dominant."

Evgeni Malkin scored 66 seconds into the game. Forward Jake Guentzel made it 2-0 at 10:57 of the first period, 59 seconds after Murray made a sensational point-blank save on forward Pontus Aberg.

Murray, who allowed 11 goals on 65 shots in the first two games, was calm, square to the shooter and in control. 

Crosby had two assists, including one on the center's eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head pass out of the right corner to set up Maatta for a shot from the left point that he put into the top right corner of the net 33 seconds into the third period.

And then there was Ryan Reaves, one of two forwards (Greg McKegg) who wasn't part of either championship team the past two seasons.

Reaves' night: One goal, seven hits, two fights that ignited the crowd and got it to chant his name, and a double minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct after coming to the aide of Crosby midway through the third period. They chanted his name after that too.

Video: NSH@PIT: Guentzel jams in the rebound for 2-0 lead

"We got embarrassed in Chicago and when you get embarrassed like that you come out really hungry," Reaves said. "We came out hungry."

Hungry and smart, if you ask coach Mike Sullivan, who said the Penguins allowed 19 scoring chances off the rush in the first two games. That's a jarring statistic for a team that is typically generating off the rush, not playing on its heels. 

Sullivan chalked it up to the Penguins' calculation of risk, saying it was too high against the Blues and the Blackhawks, that there were too many blind passes to the middle of the ice, hope plays that didn't connect and turned into rush chances against.

"Our guys did a much better job tonight in that area," Sullivan said.

It wasn't perfect, but perfection, or anything close to it, shouldn't be expected from the Penguins, or any team for that matter. What should be expected from Pittsburgh is hard, diligent, smart and skilled hockey that leads to more wins than losses.

The Penguins didn't bring any of that in their first two games, and they left Chicago with their confidence shaken and people wondering if they'd run their course, as if it didn't matter that they had 80 games to play.

They're down to 79 games left and the Penguins now look like they're back, normal again.

Are they?

"It might be too early to tell, but this was definitely a moment in time when we had to look in the mirror and we had to make some changes," forward Bryan Rust said. "It just happened really early in the year."

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