Thoughts: Game 9 – Fleury Perfect as Pens Blank Kings 3-0

By: Meesh Shanmugam

Pens 3  Kings 0

Record: 6-2-1

Goals
Kunitz (4) (PP) from Malkin, Hornqvist
Letang (1) (PP) from Kunitz
Kunitz (5) from Crosby, Ehrhoff

Click here to read the goal assessments

Penalties
Malkin (slashing)Good (gets back into the defensive zone to help out on a 3-on-2 and also skates to the far side of the ice to slash Carter’s stick and prevent a quality shot after Maatta drifted too far away from him in odd-man coverage)
Downie (unsportsmanlike conduct)Stupid (takes an extra run at Stoll on the way to the penalty boxes after being provoked by something Stoll said)
Downie (roughing) – Inconsequential (got in the face of Stoll and they both received minors)
Malkin (roughing) – Inconsequential (jabs back and forth with Williams and then takes him to the ice as they both receive minors)
Despres (interference)Unnecessary (leaves his lane and steps up on Brown skating into the zone without the puck for an easy interference call)
Adams (holding)Unnecessary (puts his free hand on Richards as they chase a loose puck and pulls Richards back slightly for the call)

Gm 9 Goals

Notable Players

Forwards

Gm 9 Forwards

Chris Kunitz – I’ve been tough on Kunitz early this season, but it’s a little harder to critique him after a three-point night that put away the Kings. Kunitz was very active in the offensive zone and may have found himself a new niche now that Hornqvist has taken his spot in front of the net. Kunitz did all of his damage around the goal line to the left of the net. He redirected Malkin’s slap-pass past Jones from there, skated along the goal line in that area before passing the puck to Letang for his goal, then he scored on a bad angle wrister from that area once again. The best part? – NOTHING WILL BE DISALLOWED FROM THERE. It seemed like Hornqvist and Kunitz might be too similar to warrant being on the same lines, but it will be interesting to see if Kunitz can keep expanding his zone to terrorize opponents by using Hornqvist in front.

 

Good thing Kunitz scored so he only got happy Malkin fists. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Good thing Kunitz scored so he only got happy Malkin fists. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Patric Hornqvist – Speaking of Hornqvist, he did exactly what he’s supposed to do in front of the net on Kunitz’s first goal. Martin Jones had no clue that Malkin even thought about passing the puck thanks to Hornqvist screening him completely in front of the net. Hornqvist also contributed to Letang’s goal, with a big assist from hockey karma as Matt Greene slashed Hornqvist’s stick out of his hands, then tripped over the stick so he couldn’t cover Kunitz. Aside from the offensive production, Hornqvist also drew two penalties, added a few takeaways, and led the team (as usual) with five shots.

Brandon Sutter – Sutter’s verbal jabs back and forth with his uncle Darryl in the days leading into the game were amusing, but Uncle Darryl probably found nothing funny about how well Sutter shut his forwards down. Whether it was family motivation, the matchup, or just growing into this game, Sutter had an outstanding night in terms of being physical, quick to the puck, and holding very tight coverages. I marked him down for three broken-up plays in the defensive zone, three forced turnovers, two pass interceptions, and a takeaway on the night. He was brilliant in closing the gap around the high slot (just ask Jeff Carter) and was more than willing to get physical (ask Drew Doughty). Based on the past few games, it appears that Johnston and his staff may have found some snarl in Sutter’s game that most of us didn’t think existed.

Defensemen/Goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury – Two shutouts within a week? This version of MAF has never been seen before! Fleury was a perfect 36-for-36 in another calm and collected effort in the crease. The shot total is a little misleading because his defense did a fantastic job of limiting shot quality (more on that later). Regardless, stopping 36 shots is still stopping 36 shots. Most importantly (to me at least), Fleury put together another effort where he looked calm and kept his movements efficient. He was solid with the puck as he stayed close to his net and made decisions quickly (even that decision to shoot it late in the game). Something appears to have clicked in the short-term after that Flyers loss; let’s hope he can keep it up. He is a completely different (and much improved) goalie when he isn’t flopping around with “athleticism.”

Keep Calm and...wait, Fleury is keeping calm?!? (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Keep Calm and…wait, Fleury is keeping calm?!? (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Simon Despres – Despres still couldn’t manage to get out of the game without taking a penalty, but his assertiveness both with and without the puck took the spotlight against the Kings. He threw big, meaningful hits starting early in the game and it led to a punishing performance with three takeaways and a forced turnover. He rarely hesitated on a decision as well, which unfortunately led to three giveaways, but paid off far more often than not over the course of the night. With Maatta exiting the lineup for a month after the next game, Despres is in a great position to finally show himself off. Hopefully that doesn’t happen in the penalty box though.

We might finally find out if Despres is a "Top 4" defenseman next month. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

We might finally find out if Despres is a “Top 4” defenseman next month. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Kris Letang – Letang upped his offensive output with five shots and a fluky goal, but it was his overall play that impressed me for the second game in a row. Letang, who has historically been a huge minus in turnovers in all of my recaps, has found a way to completely change his game this year. He had three takeaways and three pass interceptions to go along with only two giveaways and a failed clear. His puck management was superb against LA and he never let his emotions get the best of him in a hard-hitting game. My favorite aspect of his play right now is that he isn’t trying to do too much or force anything at all anymore. He may get less attention for the lack of flash he has shown, but give me all-around responsible Letang any day.

Misc. Thoughts

Tight Defensive Coverage – Though Fleury faced 36 shots, very few were from the slot, high slot, or in tight around the net. The Penguins as a team did a wonderful job of keeping the Kings to the perimeter. Not only did they force LA to the perimeter, but every puck was cleared from the crease and slot immediately to limit second chances significantly. Beyond even that, the team (Crosby and Sutter most notably) did a wonderful job of stepping up on everyone in the high slot (Carter most notably) to deflect shots away. Fleury has had tougher 13-shot nights than this 36-shot night in terms of high-percentage shots and rebound chances. The Kings are clearly off right now (losing to Detroit 4-0 in the first period as I type this), but if this defensive effort and style is what Johnston is working his team towards, the Penguins are going to be a very tough team to beat even with the roster as-is.

Sometimes, tight-checking turns angry... (gif by @JustPuckIt)

Sometimes, tight-checking turns angry… (gif by @JustPuckIt)

Dominating the Crease – While the defense and centers took care of the crease in front of Fleury, the wingers and centers (good job centers!) made life difficult for Martin Jones at the other end. Hornqvist screened him completely for the first goal, Kunitz and Letang had him scrambling for the second goal, and Crosby went straight to the front of the net on him for the eventual third goal. Aside from the goals, the Penguins had multiple other chances were Jones was scrambling from side to side and had to deal with Penguins in front of him. Hornqvist and Downie have turned into a fantastic 1-2 punch, especially on the powerplay, when it comes to driving opposing goalies crazy. Protecting their own crease and driving to the opponent’s crease – that’s a good way to win hockey games.

Unwavering Effort – The final team-effort thought is dedicated to puck support and puck pursuit. The Penguins found their legs/motivation/who knows what again as they replicated their efforts from the first few games of the season to constantly get to loose pucks first, support the puck carrier, and swarm the puck in waves. The offensive zone cycling and rotations were magical again with defensemen moving down the boards, forwards covering at the points, and eventually a Kunitz goal at the end of a tremendous shift by the first line + Ehrhoff and Martin. The entire team also put the effort into skating to loose pucks that were coming to them. Players actually skated to passes coming their way, making it very difficult for the Kings to change the flow of the game. Perhaps the reigning champs bring out the best in their opponents, but it’s nice to see that the Penguins’ best is pretty damn impressive.

Goc Usage – Marcel Goc still hasn’t necessarily found his way in Pittsburgh, but the coaching staff is finding a way to get him into better and more useful situations at least. Goc was used for some defensive zone faceoffs late in the game with Malkin’s line and with Crosby’s line. He also came up big just by being the 4th line center and handling an icing faceoff that trapped him, Sill, and Adams on the ice. He may not have the best linemates right now, but he keeps the Penguins strong up the middle and gives them options on other lines, so don’t sleep on him just yet with the quiet start.

Next Game: 11/1 vs Buffalo, 7pm

Thanks for reading!!