The Penguins hit the road this weekend for back-to-back games against Atlantic Division opponents, and they return to Pittsburgh having won both of those contests.
After beating Philadelphia 3-1 at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, the Penguins traveled to New York City and defeated the Rangers 6-3 in their home opener at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
"We're off to a good start," forward James Neal said. "It's a shortened season, so it’s huge to come out of the gates fast. Two good tests for us in Philly and New York. We got a little sloppy in the third, but we did a good job in both buildings and it feels good in our room."
Neal had two goals and Evgeni Malkin had three assists for the Penguins. Matt Niskanen, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy and Kris Letang also scored for Pittsburgh. Tomas Vokoun made 31 saves in his Penguins debut, while Pittsburgh chased last year's Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist from the cage, with Martin Biron replacing him midway through the second period.
What was most impressive about Pittsburgh’s performance against the Rangers was their puck possession, movement and the speed with which they played, especially during the first two periods. The defensemen got the puck out of their zone quickly and up to the forwards, who did whatever it took to keep play moving. At one point, the Penguins had the Rangers chasing them around their end for so long that the fans voiced their displeasure.
The Rangers didn’t give up, pushing hard in the last few minutes and cutting Pittsburgh’s lead from 5-1 to 5-3. But Letang’s empty-netter sealed the win for Pittsburgh.
"They’re important games right off the hop," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "It started with Philly and coming here, we know the Rangers are a very good team. Divisional games and where you sit in the division is very important. So to get two wins in the Atlantic Division on the road are extremely big wins for us."
VOKOUN SOLID IN START
Tomas Vokoun’s last NHL start came with the Washington Capitals on March 29, 2012. He left that game early due to a severe groin injury.
For Vokoun, the silver lining of the work stoppage was having time to rehab his groin, which had been bothering him even before that game, back to full health. During training camp, he said his groin is “as good as it is before (the injury) happened.”
And on Sunday, the healthy and hungry Vokoun shined in his first start as a Pittsburgh Penguin. He made 31 saves in the win over New York and was especially strong when the Rangers’ top offensive threats created scoring chances, primarily Rick Nash. While Nash did manage to score a shorthanded goal in the third period, Vokoun stopped all of his other opportunities in close throughout the game.
"I thought he stood strong," Bylsma said of Vokoun. "There were some flurries. We know that they’re a good team at getting pucks into the blue paint area from their offensive zone. They did that a number of times and (Vokoun and the defense) had to stand strong. I think that was key. A lot of the plays were around and in his crease and he was real strong in that regard. We’re glad to see him get his first win and for us to get our second."
"You just try to follow the puck," Vokoun said of his performance. "I believe this is like riding a bike. You never really forget it even if you don’t play for a long time. You still have doubts, more about conditioning and being game-ready and able to fight through traffic and stuff like that. I think I did a pretty good job with that today. It’s just the start. We are happy. We won our first two games, both (against) pretty tough opponents. I think we got to be happy with four points."
Neal and Malkin had career years last season playing side-by-side. That success is carrying over into the 2012-13 campaign.
Neal scored twice in Sunday’s win over the Rangers and has now scored in each of his last five games dating back to last season. Malkin got the primary assist on both tallies.
Neal and Malkin complement each other so well, playing off each other’s strengths. Malkin sees the game at such an elite level, and he uses that world-class vision and skill to find Neal. Neal does a great job of reading what Malkin is going to do and puts himself in the right areas to receive passes. When he gets them, he doesn’t hesitate to use his big shot to get pucks on net.
"That’s what I wanted to do," Neal said of continuing last year's success. "That was my mindset coming in. Luckily enough things are working out. Keep shooting it and keep going to the net. 'Geno' found me for two nice plays here."
That was perhaps most apparent on the second goal they combined for, an even-strength tally which put Pittsburgh up 5-1 in the third period. On the play, Malkin drew three defenders to him on the wall, which left Neal open in the slot. Malkin quickly slid a pass over and Neal sent a shot through Biron.
"Geno has played 30 games," Neal said of his linemate, who played in the Kontinental Hockey League during the work stoppage. "He’s coming in with a good mindset and excited to get back to playing Penguins hockey. He’s got some good game legs. He’s playing right where he left off last year. That’s good for me. I just try to get to open ice and he finds me. The pass he gave me for my second goal – he picks it up off the wall and it’s no-look right on my tape. It’s fun to be a part of."
Dupuis has done a lot with the Pittsburgh Penguins since coming to the team as part of the Marian Hossa trade back in 2008, including winning a Stanley Cup championship. But one thing he hadn’t done entering Sunday’s game was score on the power play.
That changed when Dupuis struck on the man-advantage with 10:49 left in the second period to put Pittsburgh up 4-1 over the Rangers.
Dupuis has been an integral part of the Penguins’ successful penalty killing unit over the years. But with his big shot, shoot-first mentality and elite speed, the coaching staff decided to give him a look on the Penguins’ second power-play unit this season.
Neal was the last man back and had gone back to retrieve the puck. He fired a quick stretch pass up to Chris Kunitz at the other blue line. Kunitz sent it over to Malkin, who found Dupuis in the slot. Dupuis put a perfect re-direct through Lundqvist for the score.
It was his first power-play goal since Nov. 20, 2006 as a member of the Minnesota Wild.
One strength of the Penguins is their offensive depth, with their bottom-six forwards playing their roles effectively.
Pittsburgh’s fourth line played especially well on Sunday in New York City. Joe Vitale went in for Dustin Jeffrey at center, with Tanner Glass and Craig Adams playing wing.
The trio had a big shift immediately after Biron replaced Lundqvist in net, cycling the puck and controlling play in the offensive zone so well that Rangers fans actually began booing their own players.
"I think it was just our speed on the forecheck getting in there and taking the walls away, taking their outs away," Glass said. "Then once we have it, it’s just good communication. Just being close to each other and support."
Vitale provided a burst of speed and energy to Pittsburgh’s lineup, creating the Penguins’ second goal. After receiving a bank pass from Simon Despres, Vitale went up the boards and powered past Stu Bickel, driving to the net and getting a shot in close. Kennedy stuffed home the rebound.
Vitale also shined in the faceoff dot, going 8-4 (67 percent) on draws. The physical Glass, who seems to be a perfect fit in the Penguins systems, got the team going when he dropped the gloves for a long, spirited bout with former Penguin Arron Asham off the opening faceoff. Glass and Adams were strong on Pittsburgh’s penalty kill throughout the night.
"I don’t think it’s the longest (fight I've had), I tend to have some pretty long ones," Glass said with a laugh. "Especially with 'Ash,' he’s a really tough guy and a really good fighter. So that was a good one."
Letang, who led the Penguins in minutes-played (24:17), was impressive throughout the game, especially on the power play. He manned the center point well, distributing the puck to his teammates and keeping play moving. He also used his superb speed to jump up in the offense when he could. ... Kennedy now has two goals in two games. ... The Penguins finished 2-for-5 on the power play and 1-for-4 on the penalty kill, with that goal coming on a 3-on-5 disadvantage. ... Rick Nash scored a shorthanded goal for the Rangers with just over five minutes left in the third period.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo