Going into their third game on Saturday against the visiting Calgary Flames, the Pittsburgh Penguins believe they have found the template they need.
Pittsburgh had a visit from lingering demons in their opener, a 4-2 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday. The Penguins had a two-goal lead but could not put the game away, a problem that plagued them last season.
On Friday, Pittsburgh flashed the type of game that has been expected of a team that was retooled after last season, topping the host Washington Capitals 4-0.
“It really helps a lot,” winger Reilly Smith, who scored for his first goal with the Penguins on Friday, told Pittsburgh Sportsnet in terms of this group putting things together for the first time.
The Penguins were retooled, but certainly not rebuilt. Four of their returning stalwarts were key against Washington. Evgeni Malkin had a goal and three assists, Sidney Crosby two goals, Jake Guentzel contributed two assists, and goaltender Tristan Jarry pitched a 19-save shutout.
“To get rewarded, to get two points after a tough opening night, that’s nice,” Crosby said.
Now it will be a matter of the Penguins coming up with that type of game against the Flames and not reverting to something closer to what they showed in their opener.
With Jarry starting in goal in both of the Penguins’ games and the team coming home for the back end of a back-to-back, it seems logical that Alex Nedeljkovic will make his debut with the team against Calgary. He won the backup job after signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent over the summer.
Meanwhile, Flames No. 1 goaltender Jacob Markstrom got off to a good start in the team’s opener on Wednesday, making 34 saves in a 5-3 home victory against the Winnipeg Jets.
That led to comparisons to the down season Markstrom had in 2022-23. Markstrom is ready to move on, though.
“We’ve played one game this year, and then we’re looking at Game 2,” he said. “We’re not looking back. Now we’ve just got to keep looking forward. We’re not going to compare seasons or 10 years ago or 15 years ago.
“That doesn’t matter, what I did then. We’re looking forward here.”
It’s understandable if Markstrom, 33, is a little touchy. After a 37-win season in 2021-22, he dipped to 23-21-12 last season. His a 2.92 goals-against average and his .892 save percentage were his worst ever in a full season.
Even a one-game sampling that might indicate a bounce-back is welcome for Calgary.
“(Markstrom) was awesome,” said Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane, who notched two goals and an assist in the opener. “A big game for him, and we’re going to need a lot more of those.”
Calgary, which is launching a five-game road trip in Pittsburgh, is looking for the same kind of rebound on a team-wide basis in the hope of getting back to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
There wasn’t a personnel overhaul, but schemes and attitudes were tweaked.
“I feel like the culture has changed,” Flames defenseman MacKenzie Weegar told The Athletic. “The identity in the locker room has changed, but the guys haven’t changed much. We’ve still got the same group of guys, which is great, but it just feels like it’s a better atmosphere.”