By Brian Metzer
One down and 47 to go, but the early returns were positive as the Penguins knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers in what was a hard fought road victory at the Wells Fargo Center. The Penguins played their best hockey during the first period, fell off a bit during the second and played fairly evenly with the Flyers during the third.
They were buoyed by the strong goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury throughout the affair, as the 2003 first overall draft pick became the all-time franchise leader in victories with the win. Fleury made 26 of 27 saves, which included several sparkling stops as the Flyers were pushing to tie the game up late in the affair.
Here are a few of the key stats, thoughts and observations from the game in case you missed it.
- Fleury, as mentioned above, was named third star of the game and for good reason. He looked to be in mid-season form and showed surprisingly little rust. He has long performed better when partnered with someone who was capable of playing big minutes in the National Hockey league and that is what the team now has in Tomas Vokoun. Though Vokoun is slated to start tonight against the Rangers, Fleury will be in no danger of losing his job if he continues to perform as he did against the Flyers in front of a hostile crowd.
- The “Face-Off Play” rides again. Evgeni Malkin won a face-off in the offensive zone straight to the blade of James Neal, who had lined up at the top of the circle and fired home the game winning goal on a one timer. It was something that we saw often last season as Malkin lead the league in scoring and Neal notched 40-goals. Hopefully we see it an awful lot more because it is such a bang-bang play and it is tough to defend.
- Paul Martin, vilified during his second season in Pittsburgh, looked a lot more like the guy who used to be a top pairing guy with the New Jersey Devils than the guy who fans wanted to run out of town. He made smart plays with the puck, used his stick to take away passing lanes and was in perfect position more times than not. One of the main indicators that he had a great afternoon was the fact that he was near unnoticeable, aside from a nice assist on Tyler Kennedy’s goal, where he did a great job of getting a puck to the goal. He would go on to pick up a second assist later, as he shuffled a puck to Chris Kunitz who hit an open net to clinch the win. Martin was second on the team in minutes (24:07), something that is noteworthy since they had a lot of minutes up for grabs after shipping Zbynek Michalek out during this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. One of the main reasons for the improvement might be a move to the right side. According to Bob Grove of the Penguins’ radio network, Martin has stated that he didn’t play the left much until he arrived here in Pittsburgh. He is now on the right side on the top pairing with Brooks Orpik. Though these guys are professional hockey players, little things like that can make a huge difference, especially in terms of playing the puck on the forehand/backhand, making plays off the wall and/or glass. If that was the problem, why did it take so long for this coaching staff to notice?
- Kris Letang might not have had a huge day on the score sheet, but he did have a whale of a game. He registered a plus-1, had 3 shots on goal, 2 blocked shots and most notably, played huge minutes: 27:03. Letang should continue to skate those minutes on a near nightly basis. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain that level without wearing down. Also, never fear, the points will come.
- Brandon Sutter was impressive during the team’s Black & Gold Scrimmage on Wednesday evening and that carried over to Saturday afternoon. Sutter looks big and strong on the ice, something that was more noticeable as we saw him shrug off a check by Max Talbot in the offensive zone late in the second period. He was great in the face-off circle, winning 8-of-14 and he did a nice job on the penalty kill in helping his team keep the Flyers off the board during five opportunities. Sutter also registered 2 takeaways during the game. Though many will still find ways to miss Jordan Staal, Sutter is more than capable of filling the big skates he left behind.
- Tyler Kennedy played an energetic game, scoring a goal off of a deflection, notching 2 shots on goal and throwing 3 hits. Interesting to note that this is the fifth year in a row in which he has scored a goal in the first or second game of the Penguins’ season.
- It was a bit of a head scratcher to see the Penguins’ keep Simon Despres, especially based on the fact that he could have been sent down to WBS without clearing waivers, he had a fine 2013 debut. He did take one bad penalty where he stopped skating and got tangled with Wayne Simmonds, resulting in an interference call.
- Sidney Crosby led the team, winning 65-percent of his face-offs (13-of-20). Dustin Jeffrey also had an effective day winning 63-percent (5-of-8).
Overall the Penguins picked up a huge road victory, one that helped ease the sting of last spring’s first round playoff exit at the hands of these same Flyers. The birds are back in action, as they travel to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers this evening. We’ll be back with a “game 2” update later.
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I’ll be on SiriusXM’s NHL Network Radio this afternoon talking Penguins/Flyers, Penguins/Rangers and much more at 5:45pm EST.