The Penguins took their time showing up to the Chicago game tonight, but once get got there they played the kind of hockey that makes it fun to be a fan, snagging a 3-2 win in an overtime that went to a shootout.
Chicago didn’t dress most of its big stars for this game; Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Chicago’s Most Beautiful Patrick Sharp all stayed off the ice. Alternately, the Penguins brought out the kind of roster that fans have been waiting to see since last season — Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin all played in their usual combinations. Beau Bennett skated with Malkin and Neal, and showed the same kind of ballsy physicality that he’s played with all season, proving that he deserves to be in that second line spot. Bennett’s a skinny dude, but he plays like he isn’t.
In fact, if I had to name Bennett’s game throughout the preseason it would be “Bruce from Finding Nemo.”
Not only do they have identical, terrifying sharp teeth, but Bennett brings the same attitude to his hockey that Bruce does to being a vegetarian: he’s fast and earnest and hardworking, but when push comes to shove he’s probably got a pantry full of fish hidden somewhere. (This is a real analogy.)
The game truly belonged to Kris Letang, however, whose two goals in the third period brought the Penguins back from a 2-0 deficit. Letang had a brilliant scoring season last year, leading the league’s defensemen. He hasn’t lessened any of that intensity in his preseason games, which certainly helped the Penguins tonight. Letang’s defensive partner tonight was Rob Scuderi, who wore an A. It was nice to see Scuderi in that role.
Honestly, the Pens often play their best when they’ve backed themselves into the tough spot. The first two periods weren’t bad, per se; the first period saw no goals from either team and the Blackhawks played hard for their goals in the second. But it was clear that Pittsburgh hadn’t bothered to fully show up yet. Not even captain Sidney Crosby’s brief scuffle — don’t get excited, it wasn’t anywhere close to an actual fight — could light the fire that the Penguins seemed to need. It wasn’t until Letang’s third period goal that the team seemed to snap alive, and we saw the kind of team game that we’re used to, focused on good passing and playmaking.
Once they made up their minds to play, the Penguins had clear control over the game. The Blackhawks played well, and managed to keep the score even, but the puck stayed down in Chicago’s zone. The Bennett-Malkin-Neal line skated with beautiful chemistry, showing off some gorgeous passes and getting a few good shots in.
To absolutely nobody’s surprise, when the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line played at their usual level it almost looked choreographed. Crosby had a beautiful backhand pass that didn’t end in a goal but will hopefully be GIF’d and immortalized forever, and Dupuis made an excellent shot that was deflected. Pascal Dupuis should get all the “Underrated Player” awards.
Jeff Zatkoff got the opportunity to show off tonight, stepping in for injured back-up Tomas Vokoun, and didn’t disappoint. He had a few incredible saves, including a last-minute dive back into the net to stop a shot.
Starting goalie Marc-André Fleury dressed as his backup and seemed in a good mood on the bench. It’s always good to see Fleury smiling, since his biggest problem has always been his own brain. A happy Fleury is a confident Fleury is a brick wall gymnast goalie Fleury. We like that Fleury, and we’ve been worried about him.
Overall, it was good to see all the boys back out on the ice together. When the Penguins are good, they’re incredible, and we saw flashes of that tonight in their puck handling and the way they seemed to make the game look simple. It’s easy to forget that hockey is a beautiful sport when fists are flying and forwards are tied up against the boards. It’s always nice to be reminded.