Impressions on the first two Penguin preseason games of the year

In the weird split-squad setup that saw two different Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets game happened yesterday, the Pens took the home matinee 3-2 in overtime courtesy of a Jason Zucker goal. CBJ would ice a much better lineup in the second game, and unsurprisingly protected their home ice in a non-competitive 5-1 victory.

There’s usually not a lot of fireworks in the NHL preseason, and even less to take away as meaningful from the very first games where so few difference making players were out there. All of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, all those guys got the day off yesterday as the exhibition schedule slowly ramps up.

With that said, the Pens’ exhibition games are already 13 of the way completed after yesterday. Welcome news for Mike Sullivan, to be sure. Here are six impressions after the very brief first look at the Pens, one for every hour Sullivan had to spend on the road yesterday going from Pittsburgh to Columbus and back.

  1. How quickly things move. Training camp just started last week and the camp was split into three groups. That is now a thing of the past. After yesterday’s whirlwind day, the Pens have an off-day today. And Tuesday they will host Detroit in a game (a betting man would lean towards expecting some stars to make their season game debuts). When normal practices begin again on Wednesday, there are only two teams and likely Pittsburgh will make some cuts. These will mostly be the younger players being sent back to their respective junior teams for the season. Which means yesterday could be the only game action for players like Isaac Belliveau and Ryan McCleary.
  2. DeSmith sharp in debut. Preseason play doesn’t necessarily have to carry over in a good or bad way for how NHL goalies can look once it counts for real in October, but it was good to see Casey DeSmith make a solid return from injury. DeSmith was last seen on the ice a game in May, hunched over and leaving in double OT after suffering an injury that required surgery. He’s 100% and back, stopping 12 of 13 shots yesterday in a planned half of the game of work. DeSmith was only foiled on the power play by ex-Penguin James Neal, who is in Columbus on a tryout.
  3. Poulin opening eyes. With Jeff Carter suffering an injury of unannounced severity on Saturday, the opportunity yesterday for centers like Ryan Poehling and Sam Poulin to step up took on perhaps a greater importance. Poulin held up his end of the bargain, setting up a game-tying goal in a 6v5 situation with just over a minute left. It was a simple pass from behind the back of the net to find the open player in Corey Andonovski, but an important one nonetheless.

Count that game’s temporary head coach, Mike Velucci, as among those impressed by the improvements Poulin has made to his game lately.

“On that tying goal, he protected it well and made a nice pass,” Velucci said after the game. “[The AHL coaches have] done a great job down there developing him. He’s really improved. I love what I see from him so far this year.”

Even if Carter is quickly back to 100% quickly, it’s a pivotal training camp for the 2019 first round pick to start making tangible strides to the NHL after a somewhat muted rookie season last year. So far, so good for Poulin, who is carrying a lot of good will and seems to be on a very upward trajectory and carrying momentum in his favor among the decision makers in the Pens’ organization.

4. Fights on kids day. Even in the NHL’s preseason, fighting is way down from what it once was where lots of big brutes tried to stand out by creating chaos and answering the bells for lots of fights. But it always seems like on the Pens’ annual “Free game for kids” that there are some fisticuff fireworks. (If you ever get a chance to meet the great Jesse Marshall, ask him about riding an elevator at PPG Paints with me, ex-GM Ray Shero and some other people after the Pens and Blue Jackets got into so many fights Shero was almost apologetic for it when asked, great story). Anyways, in the 2022 game for kids, Jamie Devane dropped Ben Harpur with a big shot that bloodied and injured Harpur. At 6’5, 240 and a guy who scores single-digit points per season in the AHL and gets a lot more PIMs, Devane at 31 years old could be something of a breed that was already though to be died out completely as the heavyweight enforcer type.

5. Zucker’s OT winner. In the big picture, it doesn’t mean too much, but you had to like the way Jason Zucker drove to the net with authority and actually finished the opening game off with a goal. Zucker said he is looking for a big improvement from the recent past, and it has to start somewhere. Yesterday should give him some confidence to build on and carry a good feeling

6. Evening game goes predictably. Most of these noteworthy items have been from the first game, because there is not a ton to take away from the CBJ 5-1 win in the night game. Columbus played a strong lineup that included Patrik Laine, Jakub Voracek, Gustav Nyquist and free agent prize Johnny Gaudreau. The Pens sent over mostly minor leaguers for their first road game. The result was a slog of a game that was accurately compared to a JV level sloppy contest. Eventually Columbus’ skill won out, they dominated in the second period and were never challenged. The best thing about that game is it’s over, although the line of Danton Heinen, Ryan Poehling and Josh Archibald flashed for some nice moments and Radim Zohorna looks very active out there. The big guy has sometimes surprised and impressed with his skating, and it looks as impressive as he ever has with the Pens. He’s also been prone to disappear or shrink into the background a little more than he should, so we’ll see as camp gets into the second week if he can continue to build on what has somewhat quietly been a nice opening to camp for himself.

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