The Penguins went into their intrasquad Black and Gold Game on Wednesday night at CONSOL Energy Center trying to recreate a game day. They wore suits and ties, held their normal team meetings, had a morning skate and went through all their usual routines that come with home games.
Well, the fans went one step further. They made it feel like a playoff game.
After hours of waiting in lines that stretched seemingly all the way to Oakland, approximately 18,000 fans – an incredible standing-room only crowd – packed into the arena to watch Team Black earn a narrow 5-4 win over Team White. And the players couldn’t be more impressed by and appreciative of the fan support.
“Oh, it was great,” said goalie Tomas Vokoun, playing his first game in front of Penguins fans. “I couldn’t believe it when I came out. Even for warmups, it was half full and ended up being a full building. That was unbelievable. What great fans. It’s going to be a pleasure to play in front of them.”
Fifteen Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players came to Pittsburgh for the Black and Gold Game. Thirteen of them dressed, as forward Brian Gibbons and Alex Grant were scratched for the scrimmage. Rosters for both teams can be found here
Wednesday’s scrimmage is the only real game action the players invited to Pittsburgh’s training camp will get before rosters must be set on Friday at 3 p.m.
To prepare for the season opener in Philadelphia on Saturday, the coaches put the players through seemingly every scenario possible, starting with the structure. The teams skated for three full periods, a full five-minute overtime and a shootout with five skaters on each side. They played 5-on-4, 5-on-3, 4-on-4, even 6-on-5 (empty net) at one point.
“It’s all the little details of the game that we have to get familiar with,” forward Pascal Dupuis said. “By going into every situation, we know how to run our routes. We know what to expect. We know where to be. We know who’s going to play where. I think it’s going to be good for the game on Saturday.”
It also helped for players to experience the speed and pace of actual competition, something that just can’t be recreated in practices.
“The pace was really high, especially in the first period,” forward Matt Cooke said. “I don’t think you can get any faster. So from that standpoint, I think it was a good push for us. To come and be able to do it as a game at seven o’clock at night I think is a good thing too, because we’ve been in such a routine of being done by one or two in the afternoon.”
Brandon Sutter slotted in as the third-line center between Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, and the trio seems to have genuine chemistry despite only playing together for a few days of practice. Sutter and Kennedy each had a goal and two assists while Cooke scored twice.
While they’re pleased to have gotten on the scoresheet numerous times on Wednesday, they hope their production continues when it really counts.
“We haven’t had a ton of time (together), only a few practices, but it was nice to get our line to score a few,” Sutter said. “I guess the real thing starts this weekend so we’ll worry about scoring goals then.”
Wednesday marked the first time Sutter has experienced the Penguins’ systems in game action, but he looked like he’s been with the team for a long time with how impressive he was – logging time on both the power play and penalty kill.
Just 21 seconds into the game, he made a gorgeous play when he drove to the net, drawing both Kris Letang and Simon Despres to cover him before sweeping a pass back to Cooke, who didn’t miss the wide-open net.
Sutter connected with Cooke on a similar play in the second period, this time shorthanded. Sutter got a cross-ice pass from Orpik and drove to the net before niftily dropping a pretty pass to Cooke once again, who buried it for his second goal. And in overtime, Sutter scored off a Kennedy rebound before beating Vokoun shortside in the shootout.
Getting some real action was important for Sutter, who says he still has a lot of details to learn when it comes to his new team.
“It’s good to get out and scrimmage and to kind of try things out,” Sutter said. “There’s new things to learn and plays and stuff like that that is kind of like renewing your whole knowledge of the game. It’ll take some time. I’m going to make a few minor mistakes here and there, but hopefully I can pick things up quick. Having to be able to work on it today will definitely help.”
One of the main storylines of camp has been who will play on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Both Beau Bennett and Eric Tangradi got looks there on Wednesday.
Bennett skated alongside both Malkin and even Sidney Crosby at times, and the rookie winger fit right in in with the two superstars.
Bennett got started on Wednesday night by scoring a power-play goal for Team Black to even the score 1-1. On the play, Bennett carried the puck up the left side of the ice to behind the goal line.
Head coach Dan Bylsma pointed out that goal as a bright spot in Bennett’s play, but added he’d like to see more from the young forward.
“In the first two periods, I think he had four shifts either with Crosby or Malkin and an opportunity to play in those spots in the top-six,” Bylsma said. “We certainly wanted to give him that opportunity (on the power play). That’s not unlike how he’s been having success on the power play in the American Hockey League. … I think certainly there were times I would have liked to see him do things and execute a little bit differently in terms of playing a different game, but I thought he showed some ability with his hands and making plays that we’ve seen him do the last couple months.”
Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were solid as a shutdown defensive pairing for Team Black against Crosby and Malkin’s lines. Orpik made his presence known early when he bulldozed Warren Peters by the boards in the neutral zone less than three minutes after puck drop and sent him flying.
In addition, Orpik saw a lot of time on the penalty kill while Martin played on the Penguins’ second power-play unit (and saw some shorthanded time as well).
Additional notes: Kris Letang and Simon Despres were paired up on defense for Team White. ... Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Letang also scored goals ... Despres had two assists ... Joe Morrow, James Neal, Brooks Orpik, Dustin Jeffrey and Riley Holzapfel all got one assist each.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo