Inside the NHL: Penguins have stunning slide out of the gate - The Buffalo News

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Inside the NHL: Penguins have stunning slide out of the gate

Two games into a hockey season is no reason to panic but there's nevertheless a sense of growing concern in Pittsburgh, where the October schedule is really up against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

They suffered a 5-4 overtime loss Wednesday to St. Louis on Cup banner-raising night in PPG Paints Arena, then suffered the worst loss of the Sidney Crosby era Thursday in Chicago. In a game that was over early,  the Pens gave up five goals in the first period and got pounded, 10-1, in the Blackhawks' home opener in the United Center.

Where did it all go wrong?

"It’s a 10-1 game,” a glum Crosby told reporters afterward. "Do we have enough time? It’s embarrassing.”

"The effort wasn’t there, the execution wasn’t there,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “It appears to me like we want the game easy, we don’t want to have to play the right way."

The Penguins rebounded some with Saturday's badly-needed 4-0 win over Nashville in a Cup final rematch but one win is no panacea as their troubles still remain.

Pittsburgh lost some key players off last year's team to free agency in Matt Cullen (Minnesota), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay), Nick Bonino (Nashville) and Ron Hainsey (Toronto). Marc-Andre Fleury went to Vegas in the expansion draft and set an NHL record for saves in an inaugural game with 45 in Friday's win at Dallas.

The big issue: Winger Patric Hornqvist, who scored the Cup-winning goal in Game Six over the Predators, is still out due to offseason hand surgery. That's a huge dressing room absence.

"When he’s out of the lineup, it affects things," General Manager Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday. “Right from preparing in the morning skate to the pregame to the dressing room to what he does on the ice. But we can’t use that as an excuse. All teams are going to have injured players. We have to pick up the slack. We certainly have enough good players that our play could have been better than what it’s been in the first two games."

The loss marked the first time the Penguins have given up 10 goals since a 10-8 defeat to San Jose on Jan. 13, 1996. They had not been beaten by nine goals since a 9-0 loss to Tampa Bay on Nov. 8, 2003. Both of those games, of course, pre-date Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins' center depth is thin without Bonino and Cullen, and Fleury's loss puts inconsistent Antti Niemi behind Matt Murray in goal. Niemi was weak in Chicago, getting a hook after giving up four goals in nine minutes.

"It’s early, but it’s disturbing,” Sullivan said. “When you lose a game like that, it’s disturbing. I don’t care when it is in the season. We’ve got to do some soul-searching, and right now we are just simply not playing the game the right way."

The October schedule is a brutal one, with seven of the next 11 games on the road and three more sets of back-to-backs. The Penguins next play Wednesday at Washington and Thursday at Tampa Bay. Also on the docket this month are back-to-backs at Florida and Tampa Bay, as well as Minnesota and Winnipeg. And a home game against Connor McDavid-led Edmonton.

Rutherford's 2006 Cup team in Carolina lost a game in Atlanta, 9-0, early in their championship season. He's still hoping the Chicago game was one of those nights.

"I played on some bad teams so you weren’t surprised when it happened," he said. "I guess people are more surprised it happened to the defending Stanley Cup champions." In Carolina, "Everybody thought the season was coming to an end at that point. It obviously wasn’t."

Blackhawks make a statement

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, took the Pittsburgh game as a major statement to those who say their window is closing and they might even struggle to make the playoffs. After all, they did lead the West last season with 109 points but their season was rendered moot by their first-round sweep at the hands of Nashville.

The Hawks led, 5-0, after the first period. At one point they scored four goals in a span of 2 minutes, 55 seconds -- more goals than they scored in the series against the Preds.

Showing no signs he missed the traded Artemi Panarin, South Buffalo's Patrick Kane had a goal and three assists while playing with new linemates Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz.

“It was almost like it wasn’t a real game or something,” Kane said. “It was just amazing.”

The Blackhawks' blitz of the Pens made them the fifth team in NHL history to hit double figures in a season opener, the first since Calgary outscored Detroit, 10-7, on Oct. 5, 1989. Chicago hadn't scored 10 in any game since beating Winnipeg, 10-1, on Oct. 12, 1988.

The Devils are due

An upcoming appearance by the Devils always draws groans for the often mind-numbing style they play, but count this corner intrigued by New Jersey's trip to Key Bank Center on Monday afternoon.

One subplot will be to see if the Buffalo crowd rags on rookie defenseman Will Butcher as it did during the Prospects Challenge last month in HarborCenter. The Hobey Baker winner from the University of Denver spurned the Sabres as a college free agent in August, and then became the first Devil with three points in his first NHL game in leading the way during Saturday's 4-1 win over Colorado.

But in addition to Butcher, the Devils' roster now includes No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, former Washington standout Marcus Johansson and longtime Sabres forward Drew Stafford, who signed as a free agent over the summer after finishing last season in the first round of the playoffs with Boston. And that's in addition to last summer's acquisition of Taylor Hall from Edmonton. That should make the Devils plenty more watchable.

Hat trick watch

Brandon Saad celebrates one of his three goals in the Blackhawks' 10-1 win over the Penguins (Getty Images).

Four players rang up hat tricks in their season openers, the first time according to Elias Sports that's happened in 100 years. McDavid, Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Philadelphia's Wayne Simmonds and Chicago's Brandon Saad all scored three goals to match a feat in the league's first two games in 1917. Those were posted by Joe Malone and Harry Hyland of the Montreal Wanderers, Cy Denneny of the original Ottawa Senators and Reg Noble of the Toronto Arenas.

Ovechkin poured in four more goals Saturday night against Montreal to push his career hat trick count to 19, most among active players, and improve the Caps to 19-0-0 in those games. He's the first player since 1917 to open the season with two hat tricks; Malone, Dennedy and Noble all did it that year.

McDavid and Simmonds posted the first hat tricks in an opener in their franchises' history while Saad's was the first by a Blackhawk since Bobby Hull in 1965.

McDavid is the first reigning Hart Trophy winner to open a season with three goals since Hull's '65 gem, and his second goal was spectacular for the way his rink-length rush pulled him away from Calgary defenseman T.J. Brodie.

Jason Pominville looked like he was going to join that club in Thursday's opener before falling short in the Sabres' shootout loss to Montreal. When Pominville had two goals less than a minute into the second period, Buffalo fans were again back on watch in one of the most bizarre ongoing stats in club history.

It's been more than six years since a Buffalo player has posted a hat trick at home, dating to Thomas Vanek lighting up Tampa Bay on April 5, 2011. The last one on the road was by Sam Reinhart in Winnipeg on Jan. 10, 2016.

In another sign of the current struggles of Buffalo's offense, the 2016-17 season marked the fourth time in the last six years no Sabre a hat trick. Until going dry in 2011-12, the Sabres had never gone through a season in their history dating to 1970 with no hat tricks.

Aside from losing in shootout, a nearly perfect night for Sabres' Pominville

Nolan: Playoff fatigue crowned Kings

What's happened to the Kings in recent years? Newly acquired Sabres forward Jordan Nolan said wear and tear is as much to blame as any missteps of Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter, who were fired after last season.

The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, and lost the Western Conference final to Chicago in 2013. Since then, they've missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2017, and lost in five games to San Jose in the first round in 2016. That's one postseason win in three years since the second Cup.

"It's a lot of hockey," Nolan said after he joined the Sabres last week. "Guys in the Olympics, guys playing in the World Cup. Two Stanley Cup finals, a conference final. It wears on you. A few older players that have been through a lot. After that number of years, playing so much hockey, it kind of caught up to us."

Jordan Nolan grateful for chance to continue family ties with Sabres

Aussie making debut

The NHL's international wings were spread when the Canucks and Kings played a pair of preseason games in China, and the league added another slice of history to its list of home countries Saturday night as Capitals left winger Nathan Walker scored a goal in his NHL debut as he became the first Australian to play in the league.

Walker played rugby until he was 15 and was inspired to play hockey by the movie "The Mighty Ducks." He spent six years improving his game as a teenager in the Czech Republic before moving to the US in 2012 and playing in the USHL. He was taken in the third round, 89th overall, by the Capitals in 2014.

Several Australians have played in Major League Baseball, including former Bisons pitcher Liam Hendriks, and there's been no shortage of Aussies in the NBA as well (notably Andew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova). The NFL has seen several Australian Rules player come to serve as kickers and punters.

"The NHL has been like the last frontier for us and it's the hardest one to make from Australia," Stephen White, a play-by-play announcer for Australia Ice Hockey League games on Fox Sports Australia, told NHL.com. "What he's done, in my opinion, it's the most remarkable and the hardest to achieve. It would just be massive for the sport down here. The Capitals have just got 24 million new fans."

The Australian ambassador to the US attended the game as well. His name is Joe Hockey. Seriously.

Sabre points

* Jack Eichel's eight-year, $80-million contract extension has a no-trade clause over the final four years and includes lockout protection. Eichel will be paid $10 million in salary in six of the eight years but just $2.5 million in salary and a $7.5 million signing bonus in 2020-21 and 2022-23.

The '20-21 season could see an owners lockout because the current CBA can be re-opened by either side in September, 2019. The '22-23 campaign could be a lockout if there's no new deal in place because the current 10-year agreement runs out Sept. 15, 2022.

* In injured Zach Bogosian and scratched Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges, the Sabres had $14,042,857 of cap eligible to eat press box popcorn during the season opener. That's 18.7 percent of the cap.

* Loved lots of game presentation elements to the Sabres' opener. Props to the gold suit of organist Curtis Cook -- and the rendition of "Sabre Dance". The team should take the ice to the song every period, just as it did in the Aud. The pregame intros with the team skating to center ice through Sabres lowered from the rafters were also slick, albeit in need of a spotlight on the players as they raised their sticks to the crowd in a final call while still in the dark.

* Renovations are certainly going to happen sooner rather later in Key Bank Center and I wonder if we stumbled on something when all the seats were covered in blue and gold T-shirts. Shouldn't new seats in the building all be in that pattern someday? It was amazing how much brighter the building was with gold sprinkled in, rather than with all 19,000 seats being dark blue.

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