Right from the puck drop this game had a feeling. The first 7 minutes ticked off without a whistle. End to end action was the amuse bouche and defense was the main course. Not until the third period did either side breakthrough the shot blocking and stellar goaltending. The Kraken held tough to win the game in OT.
Shots on goal creat chances. And while the Kraken did outshoot the Penguins 29-24 overall, after two periods, the Kraken had only hit Tristan Jarry with 9 shots on goal. There was not a lack for trying though, as the Kraken in those two periods missed the net 11 times as shown by the graphic below. Winning is hard to do in the NHL when you don’t hit the net.
Conversely, look at the shots by Pittsburgh in the same chart. Tons of chances in high danger areas, especially in front of the net. Grubauer has been playing to the level everyone expected when he signed a 6 year deal in the offseason. This game was a direct example of how he has been playing. The only puck to beat him was due to a screen by two of his own players that didn’t get in the way of the to block it… just block the view of their goalkeeper. In his last 5 starts, Grubauer is 4-1 with a 2.40 goals against and a .912 save percentage.
On the flip side of that was Haydn Fleury. The defenseman, drafted by Ron Francis in Carolina, played his best game of the season. Along with blocking 3 shots from high danger areas, Fleury played sound defensively in his own zone. Routinely Fleury cleared out the front of the net and followed his man, never leaving someone open in front for a screen or tip. His outlet passing was crisp and accurate, leading to quick movement through the neutral zone while he was on the ice.
The Return of Jared McCann
Another of the big story lines of the night was the return to Pittsburgh of Jared McCann. After a year in Vancouver and a few unproductive ones in Florida, McCann started to find his game in Pittsburgh where he posted his career best stats…until now. The breakout player of the expasion draft so far, McCann tied the game after Evgeni Malkin gave the Pens a lead in the ninth minute of the third period. At 16:04 of the third, McCann wins a draw in the circle to the left of Jarry. Johansson shuffled it back to Vince Dunn who let go a cannon from the right point. After the draw, McCann fought his way to the net-front and tipped the seeing-eye shot from Dunn past Jarry to tie the game.
The teams come full circle as OT played out just like the start of the game. There was end to end action with chances at both ends of the ice. Pittsburgh had the lion’s share the first few minutes and Grubauer was equal to the task. It wasn’t until 1:17 of OT did the game end.
Calle Jarnkrok started the play in the neutral zone, laying it off to Wennberg who was circling back on the near boards. Wennberg continued into the right circle to the left of Jarry and made a spectacular pass to Larsson just as he entered the zone. Larsson let go a ripper of a wrist shot from the high slot, using two Penguins players a screen. As a result, the puck wistled past Jarry into the top corner. Game Over! Two hard earned points for the Kraken against a very strong Penguins team.
First things first, the Kraken played a strong game defensively. One could say it was their most complete defensive game to date. Blocking shots, taking their man out of the flow of play, and transitioning to offense quickly and decisively. It’s always a good sign when a teams third pair plays just as much of a role as the top pair. Along with the three blocked shots by Fleury, Captain Mark Giordano led the team with four of his own, helping Grubauer seal the victory.
Speaking of whom, Philip Grubauer is playing the game everyone thought he would. He is seeing the puck a lot better and playing the angle a lot cleaner than earlier in the season. His post to post movement is quick and succinct, covering a lot of ground in a short time. It also helps when you have a little help from your defensemen friends.
Offensively the team continues to sputter. Chances are coming but the pucks aren’t hitting the net. A lot of that has to do with their zone entries. Mason Appleton is a prime example of this. The speed is there for Appleton, but instead of attacking the middle of the ice, he’s allowing the defense to push him to the boards essentially snegating his speed through the neutral zone. Therefore he is relegated to a really low percentage shot on net or forced to drop the puck to the point or around the boards.
This team is fast and skilled. They must use that speed and skill to attack the defenders and force them to make a play or take a penalty. If a player like Appleton barrels into the zone at full speed, it forces the D back on their heels and eliminates any chance at taking the body. Thus in turn, this puts the onus on the D to use their sticks wisely or take a penalty… and the way the Kraken PP has been as of late, that is not advisable.
Victory is sweet, but the Kraken can’t relish in this one. The Kraken head to New York for a back to back weekend matinee series. Next game is on Long Island versus the Islanders who have been playing better hockey as of late. Expect another defensive battle. Then, on Sunday, the Kraken make their first ever appearance at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, for a tilt against the first place New York Rangers.