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Recap: Pens Preseason Game 5 vs. Chicago

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins had the majority of their star players in the lineup in their preseason game against Chicago on Monday at CONSOL Energy Center – like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang – while the Blackhawks did not, as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa all did not dress.

But while Chicago jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, those Penguins stars led a comeback attempt for the Penguins. Letang had two third-period goals to force overtime, while Neal and Crosby scored in the shootout to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 victory.

* Letang tied for first among all defensemen in scoring last season, and judging by his performance on Monday, he could be well on his way to doing the same thing this season. Last year’s Norris Trophy finalist scored twice against Chicago, both goals coming in the third period. He led Pittsburgh back from a 2-0 deficit, forcing overtime and then the shootout. His first goal came when he saw an opportunity to step up and pick off a cross-ice pass. He leapt forward, received the puck on his stick and went in on a breakaway – deking goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and lifting a backhander. "We worked on the forecheck in the neutral zone and I ended up reading the play and had a good opportunity to score," he said.  Letang's second came on a shot from the circle on a power play. The Penguins had the chance to work with their usual top unit in the game.

* This morning, goalie Jeff Zatkoff said he might have nerves going into his first full preseason game with the Penguins – his first chance to show his teammates, coaches, management and the fans that he belongs in the NHL as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup with Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely (full details on his injury here). But if Zatkoff did have any anxiety, he certainly didn’t show it.

The 26-year-old, who has yet to play a regular or postseason NHL game, played a confident, aggressive game between the pipes for the Penguins through regulation, overtime and a shootout. "I figured I might as well get my minutes worth when I got my first start," he joked postgame. Zatkoff challenged high on shots, giving the Blackhawks nothing to shoot at, and was active moving side-to-side. "I think you want to challenge in certain situations and right reads when there's no backdoor plays," he said. "I was seeing it well and I thought guys, early on, did a good job of keeping a lot of pucks to the outside so I was able to get a feel for it." In addition, he bailed his teammates out of some tough situations created by turnovers and was also vocal with them, so much so that we could hear him from the media level at certain points. We liked that fearless yet composed attitude, and it has to be encouraging for the coaches and staff to see as they will likely be relying on him to win games during the regular season.

Perhaps his best sequence came late in the first period with the Blackhawks on their second power play of the game. It started with an unfortunate bounce, as a dump-in attempt caromed wildly off the side boards and right to the front of the net – which Zatkoff had left in anticipation of stopping the puck for his teammates. But he managed to dive back in time, making a sprawling save with his body as he leaped forward onto his stomach. Though he joked afterward that he "blacked out" during the play, Zatkoff didn’t appear rattled – following that up by moving outside the blue paint to reach around a Blackhawks player providing a screen and glove a shot. He finished with 30 saves on 32 shots, with both goals being tough ones. The first was whacked out of mid-air; the second deflected off two bodies before going in.

* Defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Olli Maatta were given the opportunity to show what they could do on the penalty kill, logging the most shorthanded minutes of the Penguins through the first two periods. Bortuzzo is a perfect candidate to play on the PK, with his long limbs and reach (he is 6-foot-4). He is also physical and did well defending the Blackhawks and playing them tough. 2012 first-round pick Maatta also held his own, battling strong on the boards behind his own net. But he is young, having just turned 19 years old, and inexperienced at this level. He made a number of mistakes, like gap control and not making the right decisions with the puck – including a turnover in front of the net late in the game. But despite all of that, his potential is obvious and he projects to be a solid two-way defenseman. Defenseman Rob Scuderi (4:34) and forward Pascal Dupuis (5:52) ended up seeing the most shorthanded minutes for Pittsburgh, with the Blackhawks getting a hefty six power-play opportunities.

* Veteran defenseman Scuderi wore an “A” for the Penguins in this game. We watched the two-time Stanley Cup winner, back with Pittsburgh after four seasons with Los Angeles, be exactly what the Pens are counting on him to be – a dependable, reliable stay-at-home defensemen who knows his role. A prime example of that is when he was on the ice in a 4-on-4 situation with Malkin, Neal and Letang. Scuderi was careful to make sure he was always back supporting the play in case it turned south (literally), content to let his teammates work the puck. Scuderi and Letang were paired together in this game, something we’ll probably see in the regular season with Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin rounding out the top four.

* Forward Matt D’Agostini left the game early in the first period and did not return, logging just 1:18 minutes of ice time before departing. Coach Dan Bylsma said after the game D'Agostini is day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

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