Here's a look at 3 takeaways from the Penguins' Thursday afternoon practice at the Panthers Ice Den in Sunrise, Florida.
1. Not a typical day off
The Pens didn't have a typical day off on Wednesday when they arrived in Florida around 3 a.m. that morning following their 5-4 overtime win over the New York Rangers on Thursday. Usually when the team is in Florida to play the Panthers, they stay in Sunrise, which is where the arena is located - about a 30-40 minute drive from the ocean. But for this particular trip, the Pens opted to stay closer to the beach, which allowed the guys to get some bonding time in the sun and the sand.
"It's refreshing," Jake Guentzel said. "You get to hang out with guys on the road and interact and be around with them in a different way. It really helps. No matter what you're doing, you're always around the guys, so it's definitely refreshing to be outside in the sun and on the beach and get some time to enjoy it, so it was fun."
While the Pens didn't take the ice on Wednesday, they did have a team workout. The strength and conditioning staff made it as fun as they could, pairing the guys into teams of two and having them partake in a spikeball tournament. Guentzel and Brian Dumoulin ended up the winners.
"Dumo was the MVP," laughed Guentzel, who went out and played more spikeball on the beach with a few guys later that afternoon, including Sidney Crosby.
"It's nice," Crosby said. "We've been playing a lot lately, so it's good to be in a nice climate, have a day off, recharge a bit. We've got back-to-backs again coming up, so we've got to take advantage of those. Nice to get one here in Florida."
The Pens practiced on Thursday at the Panthers Ice Den, and will not hold a morning skate on Friday before they play Florida at 7:30 p.m.
The Pens have a league-high 19 back-to-backs this season, and with their third set coming up Friday against the Panthers and Saturday against Tampa Bay. They weren't particularly pleased with how they did in each of the previous two: first they lost to St. Louis, 5-4, in the season opener before that dreadful 10-1 loss to Chicago the next night; the next week, they beat Washington 3-2 before falling to Tampa Bay, 5-4.
That being said, they feel much more prepared for the one ahead. First of all, they just played both the Lightning and the Panthers, so that familiarity helps. And second of all, there's more of a comfort level that comes with experience.
"It's good. Teams will know each other pretty well, but I think that being said, it's good just because we've got a couple now that we've played," Crosby said. "We felt those early on in the year, they were a little bit more of a shock to the system when you play your first couple back-to-backs or three in four. Now that we've done it a couple times I think it's nice and we should be a little bit more comfortable with them."
Quite honestly, the back-to-backs have been toughest on the goaltenders, Antti Niemi in particular - who was in net for the second game of both sets. Head coach Mike Sullivan said the other day that they would ideally like to put Niemi in a situation where he has a fresh hockey team in front of him, and that his two starts to this point have been difficult games logistically.
We'll find out who will get the nod when Sullivan speaks to the media at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. But regardless of who starts which game, both goalies are preparing the same way.
"Our job is to stop the puck and do whatever we can to do that," Matt Murray said. "I don't think we should change, whether it's a back-to-back or not. A lot of times, as goalies, we're not playing back-to-back. So it's just about treating every game the same, I think, and having that mindset that we need to be a little bit harder, a little bit better and that's something that will maybe dictate the play a little bit more."
3. Walking the walk
Before Tuesday's 5-4 overtime win against the New York Rangers, Evgeni Malkin said that his line needed to play better and help the team to win games. He and Phil Kessel did exactly that.
While it wasn't their best overall effort - Malkin admitted to having some frustration during the game that boiled over when he came to the defense of his winger - he still finished with four points (1G-3A), including the overtime game-winner, which Kessel set him up for. The winger ended up recording three points (1G-2A).
"They're such a big part of our team, it's important that they can produce offensively to help us win," Sullivan said. "But I think the last game is an indication of how talented they are, and I thought they were trying to play the game with some of the observations and insights that our coaching staff had been giving them to try to help them in the offensive zone.
"They're staying closer to one another, they're stopping on pucks, they're not playing in constant motion and as a result, they had the puck a whole lot more and some sustained offensive zone time. It wasn't just chances off the rush. They're going to get their chances off the rush because they're talented. But where we've challenged Geno's line is to have the ability to create offense different ways. I thought in the Rangers game, they had a number of shifts where they had sustained zone time because they were stopping on pucks and doing the little things that I think helps them in that area."