There was a lot of talk surrounding the challenges Pittsburgh faced heading into their 2021-22 regular season opener on Tuesday at Amalie Arena.
Not only would they be playing without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Zach Aston-Reese and Mike Matheson - they had to do so against a dominant Tampa Bay Lightning squad who raised the banner from their second straight Stanley Cup championship win before tonight's matchup.
But instead of being daunted by the circumstance, the Penguins embraced it.
"I think it's a good test for us to show what we're able to do, and it's also a big moment for a lot of guys to step up and fill big shoes," Kris Letang said before the game. "I think guys are excited. I think they see that as a challenge, and most of the time when a challenge is put in front of us, we've reacted well."
They most certainly did, as the Penguins skated out to an emphatic 6-2 victory in ESPN's first nationally-televised hockey game since 2004. It was a true team effort across the length of the ice, with every single player on the same page. Danton Heinen, Brian Boyle, Dominik Simon, Teddy Blueger, Evan Rodrigues and Bryan Rust all scored, while Tristan Jarry made 26 saves.
"I thought we played the game that we're trying to play," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We were doing everything in fives in all three zones. That's when our team is at its best. Our best defense takes place 150, 160 feet away from our net with our puck pursuit game. I thought our guys did a real good job tonight."
It really felt like the Penguins couldn't have drawn this performance up any better, which is a credit to Sullivan and the rest of his staff for getting the team ready to play during training camp. Because this style not only requires the players being in good shape; it also requires having a firm grasp on Pittsburgh's team concept and all the details associated with it, which they worked incredibly hard on during their preseason practices.
"I think we all felt very prepared," Simon said. "We all knew what to do on the ice. Then just had to execute and do it the right way. I think we did that really well."
The Penguins' identity is centered around playing fast, in-your-face hockey - being aggressive, but in a calculated way - and that's what they did all night. Whether it was getting in on the forecheck or winning foot races and puck battles, the Penguins outcompeted their opponent.
They completely tilted the ice in their favor in the first period, outshooting the Lightning by a wide margin and dominating in the faceoff dot as well. And they didn't give Tampa Bay a chance to regroup in the second, scoring just 12 seconds in and again at the 4:11 mark to take a lead they would not relinquish.
The Penguins continued that strong play in the third, though things did get a little hectic in the final six-plus minutes. The Lightning pulled goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the majority of that time, which led to two extra-attacker goals and three empty-netters. But overall, what an incredible start to the season for this Penguins team. If they continue to play like this, as Sullivan said, they can beat any team in this league regardless of who is in their lineup.
"It's only one game, there's a long way to go. But I thought the first two periods, we were playing what we envision to be Penguins hockey," Sullivan said. "You got to give Tampa credit, they're a talented team, they pushed hard in the third. They had some momentum in the third, we had some as well. But I thought overall, for the first game, I was really excited for the guys. I'm certainly proud of them. I thought our guys competed really hard. They deserve a lot of credit."
Other thoughts, musings and observations…
- Couldn't be happier for Tristan Jarry to have a game like this. He's taken a lot of heat for the way last season ended, but the Penguins believed that he would learn from it and come back stronger. So far, so good in that regard, as he was terrific tonight. For the most part, he was completely locked in, tracking the puck well and looking calm and composed while doing so. From here, it's a matter of bringing this type of game consistently.
"I think it's a big win for him," Sullivan said. "I thought he played really well. He made a handful of real good saves. No matter how hard you try to defend against Tampa, they have some gamebreakers and that quick-strike offense. They're going to get chances. We did our best to limit them, but when they did get chances, Tristan was there to make some big saves for us."
- Loved what we saw from the combination of Brock McGinn, Blueger and Simon in particular. Sullivan has said that checking lines with an offensive dimension are invaluable in this league, and that's what we got from this trio tonight. They were strong in their own end, with McGinn earning the nickname "Block McGinn" on Twitter after throwing his body in front of a game-high four shots. And they contributed at the other end, with Simon having a particularly standout performance with the plays he was making in Tampa Bay's zone. It was great to see him get rewarded in the goal column.
"It felt really good. Really good," Simon said. "I was lucky to get some goals in preseason games, too, so that felt amazing as well. Now in the big game in the regular season, it's different, so really thankful for that."
- What an incredible story Boyle is. Despite his most recent NHL season coming in 2019-20, the veteran forward continued to train and prepare over the last year and a half in hopes that he would hear from a club. He finally got the call from Pittsburgh, who brought him to camp on a PTO. Hours after signing a contract this morning, he scores a goal in his first game.
"I know our team was really excited for him. Certainly our coaching staff was as well," Sullivan said. "He's just a real good pro. He's a great person. And he was a big part of this win tonight."
- Danton Heinen continues to impress. The Penguins signed him this summer because they felt like he had offensive upside and was capable of posting numbers like he did in his rookie season (16 goals, 31 assists and 47 points in 2017-18 with Boston). And he looks poised to do so, as he had some solid offensive performances during the preseason and got a big tally tonight.