NHL Exhibition: Malkin Dominates, Prospects Shine in Penguins' Win over Detroit

James ConleyContributor IIISeptember 22, 2011

Penguins fans should be more excited for Malkin's return than Crosby's. Geno confirmed reports of his renewed focus and commitment to winning on Wednesday.
Penguins fans should be more excited for Malkin's return than Crosby's. Geno confirmed reports of his renewed focus and commitment to winning on Wednesday.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Penguins started the 2011 preseason as well as they could have hoped, beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 at CONSOL Energy Center.

Evgeni Malkin, Matt Niskanen and Chris Kunitz scored for the Penguins, who lit up Detroit in the second period with two goals and a 14-7 advantage in shots.

Jiri Hudler and Niklas Kronwall scored for the Red Wings.

A number of Penguins' starters sat out Wednesday's preseason opener, including Brooks Orpik, Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Zbynek Michalek and Sidney Crosby.

While both clubs fielded only a handful of NHL starters, the Penguins received a number of impressive performances, not the least of which from returning superstar Evgeni Malkin.

Geno does Geno things

It was only a preseason game, and what happens now will mean little in April.

However, that shouldn't take the shine off Malkin's play against Detroit.

For the first time since perhaps the 2009 postseason, Malkin made the game of hockey look easy. He scored the Pens' second goal of the night and set up the first with a beautiful pass to Chris Kunitz in the slot.

“He was at a dominant level,” head coach Dan Bylsma said of Malkin. “His skating looked good. He was strong, powerful on the puck. To get fans out of their seats in an exhibition game three or four times playing the right way, driving to the net, good with the puck, hunting the puck, it was a pretty good first game back from injury.”

After driving the right wall and forcing Jimmy Howard to commit to the five-hole too soon, Malkin brought the puck to his backhand and tucked it in between Howard's shoulder and the short-side post. Vintage.

Perhaps his best play of the game resulted in a missed shot. After carrying the puck into the high slot, Malkin wheeled around three Red Wings' defenders and delivered a spinning backhand pass onto the tape of a rushing Kris Letang, who rung a wrist shot off the post.

Outside the box score, Malkin looked like himself on the ice, skating effortlessly through the offensive zone, forcing turnovers on the backcheck and creating time and space for his linemates. His passes were connecting, he limited his own turnovers and created scoring chances or time in the opponents' zone with nearly every shift.

Teamed with Kunitz on his left side and James Neal on the right, Malkin also had finishers on his flanks for the first time since 2008. The three provided a good look at a probable opening day first line, combining for two goals, an assist, a plus-4 rating and nine shots on goal.

As well as the three of them played, it was Malkin who made the unit go.

"He was playing awesome,” Fleury said of Malkin. “It’s like he hasn’t missed a beat. It was fun for us.”

Niskanen solid in first game

Like Tyler Kennedy last year and Pascal Dupuis the year before, Matt Niskanen has been tagged as an early question mark in training camp.

Niskanen joined the team last February as part of the Neal-Goligoski trade. He saw some regular season time on the third defensive line, pairing with Ben Lovejoy.

It was that pairing that was torched by the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games last spring.

Niskanen is now part of a four-man battle for the last defensive spots, competing for a job with Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland (who the Penguins signed to a three-year extension last season) and offseason acquisition Alexandre Picard.

It was thought that Niskanen could bring some offensive flair when he was acquired and that was the case last night, as he scored a power play marker in the second period. His point shot found its way past Jimmy Howard with big man Colin McDonald providing the screen in front.

Niskanen registered four shots in the game, including three blocked shots and one missed shot to give him an even rating. Overall, it was a good audition for a young player fighting for his job.

Youth Movement

With so many starters sitting out Wednesday's game, the staff got a good look at some of its prospects.

Joe Morrow, Brad Thiessen and Joe Vitale stood out.

Morrow, the top pick of the 2011 draft, continued his standout training camp performance with an excellent showing in his first NHL game action. Morrow tallied an assist and a minus-1 rating in 21:05 time on ice, the second-most TOI behind only Kris Letang.

Morrow was used in all situations, most predominantly even strength and on the penalty kill.

His vision, confidence and composure with the puck were obvious in the first days of training camp, and he did not lose those elements of his game in a real NHL situation. His breakout passes were crisp and on-target, and his puck retrieval was strong as well—each an element of the game held in high regard by the Penguins' coaching staff.

As for composure?

“I didn’t have any nerves coming in this game," Morrow said. "I was too excited to play with this caliber of people and everything like that...I was too excited to be nervous today.”

If the Penguins were questioned for selecting a defenseman with their first pick this summer (instead of the much-sought after winger), Morrow is providing answers.

Brad Thiessen was also stellar in his third period action, stopping 15 of 16 shots and maintaining his composure after allowing an early, flukey goal. Look for Thiessen to get a handful of NHL starts this season.

Like Thiessen, Vitale is knocking on the door of the NHL roster, and would likely be with the team already if not for its significant depth. Vitale was 10 of 16 in the faceoff circle and a key member of the penalty kill, almost registering a shorthanded goal on a 2-on-0 breakaway.

Vitale's eventual call-up will nicely illustrate why the Penguins did not attempt to match Max Talbot's $9 million contract offer from the Flyers.

Look ahead, camp notes

The Penguins play the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night in their second game of the preseason. A look at the presumed lines, from the Penguins' official team site:

Kennedy—Staal—Nick Johnson
Tangradi—Letestu—Colin McDonald
Cooke—Bryan Lerg—Adams
MacIntyre—Zach Sill—Keven Veilleux


Brent Johnson will start in goal and play the first two periods. Scott Munroe is scheduled to play the third.

- Western PA native Brandon Saad will skate for the Blackhawks, who selected Saad in the second round with the 43rd overall pick (Blackhawks).

- Sidney Crosby did not participate in Thursday's morning skate. He had a scheduled day off and there remains no further updates on his condition, other than that he has not reportedly had a recurrence of symptoms (Penguins).

- The coaching staff is looking for a big game from Eric Tangradi, Bylsma calls it "chance to make statement." (Josh Yohe, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

Follow more of James' preseason coverage at Slew Footers, or take him to task on his factual inaccuracies @slewfooters.


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