Penguins erasing zeroes on Western Canadian road trip

November 15, 2018

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, it came with the territory.

Every time the Pittsburgh Penguins came to town over the past couple of seasons, the majority of opponents would greet them with a high-effort, high-intensity game they save for matchups against the toughest foes.

But what happens when an opponent doesn’t bring its ‘A’ game when the Penguins visit?

Thursday night in Calgary happens.

The Flames turned in a lackluster performance, and the Penguins beat them unmercifully, improving to 3-0-0 on a Canadian road trip heading into its final stop in Vancouver on Saturday night.

Here are five things we learned from the Penguins’ 9-1 victory.

1. Erasing zeroes

It started with Tuesday’s 6-5 overtime win over the offensively exciting but defensively porous Edmonton Oilers. It continued with Thursday’s blowout in Calgary.

This Western Canadian trip has been exactly what the Penguins needed to erase the zeroes from their stat sheet.

Sidney Crosby came into the trip with no goals in the first six games of the season. He scored twice Tuesday and added a goal and two assists Thursday. Patric Hornqvist was scoreless until he racked up two goals in Edmonton and two more in Calgary.

Against the Flames, Bryan Rust scored his first goal of the season, and Matt Cullen scored his first goal since rejoining the Penguins as a free agent in July.

Among players who have appeared in all eight games this season, there are precious few zeroes left to eradicate. Brian Dumoulin hasn’t scored a goal, and Jake Guentzel has yet to record an assist. That’s about it.

2. Goalie rebounds

Matt Murray has been brilliant since returning from an eight-day absence because of a concussion and a four-day stint as Casey DeSmith’s medically cleared backup.

He made 38 saves Thursday night, including an important diving stop on James Neal when the game was still scoreless three minutes into the first period.

Since returning, Murray has a .951 save percentage in three starts. Before the injury, he had an .831 save percentage in two starts.

3. Big game for Brass

Although his shot-attempt stats indicate he spent a lot of time in the defensive zone, Derick Brassard made noise on the scoresheet for the first time since scoring in the season opener.

Playing primarily as a top-line left wing with Sidney Crosby and Guentzel, Brassard had three assists.

Brassard had Wednesday’s practice off for maintenance and didn’t take a shift in the last 10 minutes of Thursday’s game, so his health is something to watch moving forward.

4. Backhanded compliment

After scoring a highlight-reel winner on his backhand Tuesday night, Crosby opened the scoring Thursday with another impressive backhand goal.

Crosby has scored 40 backhand goals since the league started keeping track of such things in 2009.

Only Boston’s Brad Marchand with 53 has more.

Crosby has 296 backhand shots during that same span. Only Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg with 319 has more.

5. Lineup changes

Thursday night’s final score was good news for everyone in black and gold except Daniel Sprong and Juuso Riikola. They were healthy scratches, making room for Derek Grant and Chad Ruhwedel to make their season debuts.

Riikola’s scratch isn’t shocking. He ranks last in shot-attempt percentage, shot percentage and goal percentage among healthy Penguins defensemen.

Jack Johnson might have been the more obvious odd-man out after he was on the ice for all five Oilers goals Tuesday night, but coach Mike Sullivan said Thursday that he considered none of the goals to be the 31-year-old defenseman’s fault.

Sullivan gave Grant about 10 minutes of ice time, two more than Sprong had been averaging.

Between injuries and coach’s decisions, Riikola and Sprong aren’t likely to stay out of the lineup long, but in the short term, they can make their seat reservations in Vancouver’s press box.

Coaches don’t often make roster changes after a 9-1 win.

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