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Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning: Five (+ one) questions with Pensburgh

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Do they love Mike Sullivan? Do they miss Marc-Andre Fleury? How goes this post-cup season so far?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Penguins @ Tampa Bay Lightning: GAME #9

Time: 7:00 Eastern Time

Location: Amalie Arena

Broadcast / Streaming: SUN, ATTSN-PT

Opponent SBNation Site: Pensburgh

Preview:

When last we met the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena on October 12, they were playing the second half of a back-to-back, and Antti Niemi was in net. They had just beaten the Washington Capitals in DC, 3-2. The Bolts powered through on the strength of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 36 (out of 40 shots) saves, delivering 34 shots of their own, 29 of which Niemi saved. After the game, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan spilled a little of his strategy when discussing the Bolts’ victory:

We tried hard to play a more disciplined game in a game that wasn't. We don't want to be a team that trades chance for chance because you can't control your destiny if you play that way. We have to be more of a team that controls territory, that controls the momentum, that has more of a defensive conscience in mind so that we have a better opportunity to control the outcome.

Once again the Penguins will be playing the Lightning on the second half of a back-to-back, after spending Friday night in Sunrise, where they won, 4-3. Matt Murray played last night; will we see Niemi again tonight?

Today, to give us the inside scoop on the Pittsburgh Penguins and how they feel coming into this season after a summer of change, we have Pensburgh’s own Kaitlyn (@kaitdivi).

Five (+one) questions with Pensburgh:

Raw Charge: Your team went through a Chicago-esque gutting this off season. What is the current team dynamic like, and how are things settling out in the first few games of the season?

Kaitlyn: While it’s true that the Penguins lost a handful of Stanley Cup-winning veteran guys in Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, and, if you’d like to include him as a “veteran,” Nick Bonino, anyone in hockey will tell you that building and preparing for the future is ultimately the goal of any organization – even one on the brink of completing the first three-peat since the 1980s.

Yes, Pittsburgh is now short down the middle of its bottom six, but the gutting needed to happen in order to move on with the progression of the excellent young talent the organization is so highly touted for. Right now, the team is going through some growing pains, as one can expect in the early games of the new season, but the team dynamic hasn’t changed one bit.

Pittsburgh wants another Cup, and it isn’t going to let not having a set third-line center get in the way of that. Its goal is to win no matter what it takes to do so, and the effort this team brandishes on any given night, even being only eight games into the season, is proof of that.

This was best exemplified in the Penguins most recent game against the New York Rangers, where they came back after being down in the third period thanks to a wicked, jaw-dropping goal by Sidney Crosby from an impossible angle in the final minute of play after pulling Matt Murray two minutes earlier. These types of victories don’t happen if you’re not irrevocably committed to winning. The guys on this team all have that mentality, and it translates to their relationship on the ice.

Raw Charge: The Penguins are currently at 5-2-1. What factors might have gone into this start?

Kaitlyn: The Penguins are second in the Metro and sixth in the NHL. I think the main factor playing into their start is what we mentioned in the first question. Pittsburgh is getting used to its new team, and that includes newcomers Matt Hunwick, Ryan Reaves, and Greg McKegg.

Head Coach Mike Sullivan has been cycling around his wingers on just about every line so far, so I think it’s just been a product of figuring out what line combinations work best. And to find those answers, he has to run a trial and error strategy to see what player matches are the most productive. I think, too, their slow start is attributed to a couple of injuries to notable team figures Patric Hornqvist and Ian Cole.

Hornqvist is a goal crease specialist, and Cole provides the Penguins will stellar shot blocking skill and another body on the defensive corps – something Kris Letang, with the additional minutes he’s received, has had to take the most responsibility for. I expect the team to continue looking better as the season goes on, particularly since those two players are back in the lineup. It won’t be long until Pittsburgh starts to pull away from the pack and sit atop the standings.

Raw Charge: Greg McKegg looks good in your system. How bad would a forward have to be to not look good playing for Penguins?

Kaitlyn: Kegger has surprised just about everybody this season. He had a great training camp and preseason showing, but I’m not sure the coaching staff planned for him to be as good as he’s been – especially not this early on. He’s currently earning third-line minutes, which means he beat out Carter Rowney, a decent player out of the Wiles-Barre/Scranton organization who has NHL playoff experience.

But to answer your question, a forward on Pittsburgh would have to be flat out abysmal to not at least appear decent on this team. I just don’t want that to take anything away from how well McKegg has played so far, given his tough situation constantly being under GM Rutherford’s and the fans’ microscope. He has a lot more experience than he’s given credit for, and has done nothing to really tarnish his role as a “Penguins forward.” Whatever that title means to hockey fans.

McKegg has tallied three points on one goal and two assists in eight games played, and makes some sort of a positive impact every shift. His future will probably be the fourth line center once Rutherford finds a solid trade closer to the midway point of the season, but for the time being, he’s been a key cog for holding together a lacking bottom-six. The Penguins are riding that train while it stays hot.

Raw Charge: How much do you guys love Mike Sullivan, and have there been any deployment issues so far where you've questioned his decision making?

Kaitlyn: Mike Sullivan is one of the best things to happen to the Penguins in years, and it’s translated to a citywide love and appreciation for him. This man is responsible for taking the reigns from a disappointing (and short) Mike Johnston career, turning around an unsatisfactory team performance in 2015 and re-forming it into a Stanley Cup winning debut year for him.

The system he applies is genius. It’s completely focused on speed, speed, speed, rather than plain old grit. In fact, it’s been so successful, that the other 30 teams in the NHL have applied it to their own systems in an attempt to mimic the success of the Penguins, which is evident in the players they’ve taken in the following NHL drafts.

I remember when I was a senior at Penn State sitting inside the Primanti’s in State College watching the Penguins getting battered by the Boston Bruins just after Johnston was fired and wondering in agony if this was going to be the fate of the team that season and for seasons to come. A few months later, Sullivan went on to have a 33-16-5 record, and the Penguins dominated throughout the entire 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Ever since then, I’ve had no doubts about his decision-making, and I don’t think I ever will. The city of Pittsburgh agrees. I mean the guy has won two Stanley Cups in less than two years while being the Penguins head coach. What more evidence do you need?

Raw Charge: How good is Jake Guentzel? His numbers are crazy. What do you think his career looks like long term?

Kaitlyn: Pittsburgh struck gold with 23-year-old Jake Guenztel. He’s a product of the Penguins lucrative college hockey group, and though he doesn’t really look the part of an extraordinary hockey player, the biggest mistake you could make is drawing underwhelming conclusions about just how special this kid is.

Guentzel excelled in the AHL, so much so that he completely destroyed in the points-per-game pace, where he tallied 21 goals and 21 assists in 33 games in his last half-season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

And now that he’s made the jump to the NHL for good, he’s been nothing but a sustainable force (usually) paired with the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. Guentzel is piggybacking this season off of his huge playoff performance, where he was responsible for scoring the OT winner (the third goal of his hat trick) in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

And in the third period of a Stanley Cup Final game against Nashville, he bagged a goal with less than four minutes to go. This kid leads the Penguins in goals in the postseason, which includes names like Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and of course, Crosby.

Guentzel’s 21 postseason points, 13 of them goals, tie him all-time for a rookie, just one short of the record. His type of play isn’t one that demands attention, but man does he hurt teams where it counts. I think that’s the biggest reason for folks not knowing for sure if he’s a force to reckon with for the future or not.

So far this season, he’s garnered a quiet five points (two goals, three assists) in eight games. His Corsi and Fenwick aren’t too shabby either; both are ~54%. His future doesn’t seem to have a ceiling, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to see him continuously excel at such a young age.

Raw Charge: We miss Tampa Bay Lightning (one hour) legend Mark Streit and feel sad that he's retired. How will his retirement impact tonight's game? Do you think Tampa should have a video tribute?

Kaitlyn: From the perspective of a Penguins fan, I didn’t have much time to appreciate what Mark Streit did in his career, as we only got a taste of him throughout the playoffs last season. But in that time period, we were very thankful for him joining a broken team needing a defenseman who’s been there before.

Streit, alongside Ron Hainsey, fit that role, and though he didn’t execute outcome-changing plays in that 16-game stretch, he filled a gaping hole in a time where Pittsburgh needed him to the most. We owe him a lot.

But you have to admit, his minuscule tenure as a member of the Lightning is hilarious, and I think it would be a fun moment to give him a little shout out and congratulate him for winning being a part of the reigning Stanley Cup team before tonight’s game because of his ties with both Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. It won’t impact the actual game at all though.

Raw Charge: Thanks for your time!

Tampa Bay Lightning:

Forward Lines:

Vladislav Namestnikov — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov

Ondrej Palat — Brayden Point — Yanni Gourde

Chris Kunitz — Gabriel Dumont/Cedric Paquette (?) — Ryan Callahan

Alex Killorn — Tyler Johnson

Defense Pairings:

Victor Hedman (?) — Jake Dotchin

Mikhail Sergachev — Anton Stralman

Braydon Coburn — Dan Girardi

Slater Koekkoek — Andrej Sustr

Goaltenders:

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Peter Budaj

Pittsburgh Penguins:

Forward Lines:

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Conor Sheary

Bryan Rust - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel

Carl Hagelin - Greg McKegg - Patric Hornqvist

Tom Kuhnhackl - Carter Rowney - Ryan Reaves

Defense Pairings:

Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang

Olli Maatta - Chat Ruhwedel

Ian Cole - Justin Schultz

Goaltenders:

Matt Murray

Antti Niemi