Monday, October 13, 2014

Weekend wrap: Don't overreact to anything (including the completely unbeatable Penguins)

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: Not Overreacting

There are always lessons to be learned from a season’s first few nights; it just takes a while to figure out which ones. This time last year, we were all buzzing about the upstart Avalanche stomping the contending Ducks in a season-opening 6-1 blowout. It turned out that Colorado was for real — but so was Anaheim, which shrugged off the loss on the way to a 116-point season.

This year has offered up a few more surprises. But it’s been less than a week; most teams have played just two games, with a handful sitting at three. Every team will have good or bad three-game stretches a dozen times a year, and they tell us virtually nothing, just like much of this week’s action. We probably don’t know much yet. Don’t overreact to anything you’ve seen so far.

But that’s easier said than done, because the early days of a season magnify every flaw — and every strength. And so far, not many teams have looked stronger than the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They won an exciting 6-4 shootout against a very good Ducks team on Thursday, then toyed with a not-so-good Maple Leafs team en route to a 5-2 win on Saturday night. In both games, the Penguins looked unstoppable early on, jumping out to a 3-0 first-period lead. The Ducks were good enough to claw back and make a game of it, forcing the Penguins to hit the gas pedal again. The Maple Leafs, not so much.

Through two games, Pittsburgh’s stars have looked dominant. Sidney Crosby has six points, Evgeni Malkin has four, and new acquisition Patric Hornqvist has scored twice. Sophomore defenseman Olli Maatta had three assists in the opener. If there’s a downside, it’s that Marc-Andre Fleury has been merely OK, but that’s all he has needed to be.

New coach Mike Johnston has emphasized possession, moving away from a dump-and-chase strategy. He wants the team’s best players to keep the puck on their sticks, and for the first two games, that’s exactly what’s happened. The Penguins toyed with the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, to the point where Toronto fans booed the team off the ice, even tossing a jersey in protest.

Afterward, in the hallway outside the Penguins’ dressing room, Johnston offered up praise for his high-powered offense. “You saw in the preseason, we had trouble scoring goals. I thought we were generating chances, we just weren’t converting,” he said. “But the last two games, we seem to be able to get out to a good start. The biggest thing for me tonight was how we finished. I thought the second period and into the third we were managing the puck a lot better than we did against Anaheim, and that’s where we really have to build.”

While it’s hard to watch Pittsburgh’s first two games without getting excited about this team’s chances, jaded Penguins fans may be able to manage it. This has been an excellent regular-season team for years, but it has become a franchise that is only ever judged based on what it does in the playoffs. Even in the aftermath of Saturday’s cakewalk in Toronto, talk in the Penguins locker room eventually turned to last year’s playoff disappointment. You get the sense that this team could go 82-0-0 and lose in the conference finals, and the season would be deemed a failure.

But for now, it’s hard not to be impressed. The Penguins are off until Thursday, when they’ll start a three-game homestand with a game against the Stars.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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