Penguins Show Promise By Battling Through Difficult Start

Chew on this for a moment.

On Sunday night, the Penguins played their third game of the season. It was their third in four nights, and their third away opener of the season.

A home opener is an intense affair. Inevitably, it's sold out. Fans are treated to some sort of ceremony to get their blood flowing. The players have been waiting for this for weeks, months. More often than not, they either lost their last game of the season, or ended on a sour note by missing the playoffs.

It's a new season. It's time to crack heads, and prove that you belong in the NHL.

The Penguins were treated to this as visitors three times in a four-night span to start the season, thousands of miles away from home.

First, in Vancouver, home of the Stanley Cup runners-up. A long ceremony was held, and fans were worked up into a not-quite-riotous tizzy, ready for their boys to prove that this year was the year, since last year clearly wasn't.

The Pens jumped out to a 3-1 lead behind the offensive barrage of ex-Canuck and suspension pariah Matt Cooke. The Canucks stormed back, forcing the game to overtime and eventually a shootout, where the Penguins won.

Two nights later, the Pens traveled to Calgary, visitors for the Flames' home opener and first game of the season.

Ceremonies, fans, excitement, maybe even fireworks.

The Pens jumped out quickly, and spectacularly, seizing the game by the throat in the second period. The Flames stormed back in the third, but Jordan Staal's empty-net goal sealed another hard-fought win in Western Canada.

But there is no rest for the weary. Less than 24 hours later, the puck would drop in Edmonton. It was the Oilers home opener, and their first game.

Ceremonies, fans, excitement, maybe even fireworks.

The quick start to the season had already taken a toll on the Penguins lineup. Evgeni Malkin was ruled out of the game with a lower body injury, Marc-Andre Fleury afforded a scheduled night's rest. Brooks Orpik, Dustin Jeffrey and Sidney Crosby were still struggling to overcome their various ailments. Arron Asham sat as well. Perhaps an injury, perhaps a night off.

Young, speedy (excluding Ryan Smyth) and hungry, the Oilers put foot to gas from the start. The Penguins gained a fortuitous lead early, the impressive Kris Letang adding another goal to the rising tally of the Penguins' suddenly prolific power play.

But the Penguins looked like second-best for most of the night. Brent Johnson, suddenly one of the top second stringers in the NHL, was impressive in net for most of the game, his movements precise and his decision-making clear. 

The Pens defense coped well with Taylor Hall, blooming before our eyes, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ... but not well enough to shut them out. Once Johnson conceded with just over five minutes remaining in the third and the Penguins failed to score on a five-minute power play, the end result looked clear. Johnson's effort in the shootout typified a goaltender who was rattled, and the visitors were finally felled.

The Penguins earned five of six possible points on their season opening road trip, an impressive haul at any point of the season. That they managed to do it under less-than-favorable circumstances and with an injury-laden roster says even more.

Malkin and Orpik will be back soon, and perhaps Jeffrey as well. Crosby, well, who knows. It'll happen soon enough.

They get a night off before returning to the ice on Tuesday night for their own home opener, against the Florida Panthers.

Ceremonies, fans, excitement, maybe even fireworks.

Weary as they may be, I can't imagine a scenario where it could feel any better to be home.

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