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The Inside Scoop: Training Camp Day 2

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
The second day of Penguins training camp took place Saturday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. It was a similar schedule to Friday, as the 53 camp invitees were again broken into two groups (Team A and Team B) that used both ice surfaces.

The most noteworthy aspect of today was that the Pens started working on special teams play. After each group skated for 45 minutes on the Dick’s Sporting Goods Rink, they moved to the other ice surface for 30 minutes of power play and penalty kill scrimmaging.

We got our first look at Phil Kessel on the power play this morning, and even though it was only for one session, the way him and Sidney Crosby were working the opposite half walls on a unit with Kris Letang on the point, David Perron in the slot and Chris Kunitz in front of the net was exciting to watch.

At one point, as Crosby stood at the boards with the puck on his stick looking for an outlet, across the ice Kessel started cutting to the net. Crosby saw him go and quickly threaded a perfect pass through the slot right on his stick for a one-timer into the open net before Marc-Andre Fleury could even react.

And while it may have been just one practice, Kessel certainly enjoyed working with Crosby to make plays.

“If I get an opportunity to play with (Crosby) it should be a lot of fun,” Kessel said. “I’m excited about it.”

Both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin love having right-handed shots on the left side because of the one-timer opportunities it presents, and now they’ve got one of the best in the game in Kessel. Pair their playmaking ability with Kessel's elite finishing ability and it’s truly scary to think of the damage they could do on the power play – especially after getting a glimpse of it this morning with a sequence like that.

“Just what I expected,” said Crosby of Kessel’s play on the man-advantage. “He’s got a great shot, he uses it well there. He can see the ice, so having a guy that can shoot the puck like that on that side is definitely going to draw some attention there.”

The Pens’ stars also saw a lot of reps on the penalty kill (Crosby and Kunitz went out together constantly). While head coach Mike Johnston said that putting guys like that over the boards during shorthanded situations could take away from their even-strength and power-play minutes, he recognizes the advantage of having threats like that on the ice in those situations.

So depending on how games flow in terms of penalties, Johnston wants to utilize those players on the penalty kill.
“Any time I’ve had high end players on the penalty kill, the other team gets nervous when they’re on the power play,” Johnston explained. “If you can back them up and make them nervous, that’s a good thing.

“When Sid’s out there killing, Geno’s out there killing, you are a little bit hesitant. If the puck turns over you have to be careful. The power play is on their heels a little bit. I’d like to get them in the rotation and work them in early in the season if we can.”

While Johnston said not to read too much into his forward lines during these practices, it’s a different story with his defense pairs.

With so many injuries to the blue line last season – especially down the stretch – and a couple of top-four departures in Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff, there aren’t any defensemen on the training camp roster that have played consistently together in Pittsburgh.

So even though it’s only Day 2 of training camp, the coaching staff has already put together potential regular-season duos and have been evaluating them during rushes and drills.

“If you looked closely at our defense pairs in practice, those are guys we really want to see how they look together,” Johnston said. “We had (Olli) Maatta and (Kris) Letang together a lot. We had (Derrick) Pouliot and (Ben) Lovejoy together a lot. We’re trying to see what they look like as a pair because we don’t have one pair returning that you could say was a pair we used all the time last year. There’s none of that. So we have to look at some pairs.”

While Maatta is thrilled at the prospect of skating alongside Letang on the top pairing, he knows they would be the leaders of the blue line – and that’s a big responsibility. But the 21-year-old is ready to show over these next few weeks that he can handle such a role.

“I want to prove to management, prove to my teammates that I can do that, I can play big minutes every night and that’s what I’m here to do,” Maatta said. “It starts from here. I have to have a good camp and just keep building and get better every day.”
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