Kennedy's big night could be promising sign of things to come for Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins knew if they were going to be able to remain a contender, they were also going to need improvement from within. The obvious promotion was Jordan Staal going from third-line checking center to second-line winger.
It's only one game, but Tyler Kennedy's two-goal performance Saturday night in a 4-3 overtime win over the Ottawa Senators at the Globe Arena could also possibly be a promising sign of things to come as the Penguins figure out who else is going to score goals other than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"Yeah, we're going to need contributions from everyone," Crosby said. "TK and everybody else is going to need to contribute along with other guys like myself and Gino [Malkin]. We realize we're not going to win without everyone [chipping in].
"We've had contributions from everyone when we've had success and that's not going to change this year. If TK keeps having nights like this, I like our chances."
Kennedy was supposed to start the season as the third-line checking center. But a groin injury to Petr Sykora lifted the 22-year-old native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, into a top-six role alongside Malkin and Staal.
He didn't waste any time reassuring coach Michel Therrien he was the right guy for the sudden promotion, his first goal 40 seconds into the game opening the season in style.
"The first one, I was glad to get that off my back, for one," said Kennedy, who went goalless in the playoffs last spring and hadn't scored since March 16, 2008, a span of 29 games.
"He didn't score any goals in the playoffs for us, but his work ethic was there," said Therrien. "He was contributing in other ways. He brought energy and he was fighting for his teammates. What else can you ask for as a coach? He was doing everything that we asked him to do."
Kennedy's overtime winner was a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle that beat Martin Gerber glove side, and the Penguins' bench exploded into celebration. Perhaps no one was happier than Therrien, whose gut feeling in giving Kennedy an offensive role paid dividends.
"If there's one guy that deserves to score the winner, it's Tyler Kennedy," said Therrien. "He worked so hard again tonight. Not only offensively, but defensively, finishing his checks. He was an inspiration for his teammates tonight, there's no doubt about that."
Kennedy had 10 goals and nine assists in 55 games last season, his first in the NHL. But he was used in a third- or fourth-line role. Like Staal, he may benefit greatly from the offseason defections.
"I think I worked hard in the summer, and I thought if I did that, I would build confidence from it," said Kennedy. "That's what I tried to do and I think I came in with a lot of confidence."
Said Therrien: "He had a great training camp and it showed in his first game."
Crosby (one assist) and Malkin (one goal) were both terrific as usual, and the latter was a threat on nearly every shift, showing his explosiveness on his short-handed, breakaway goal 3:18 in the second period.
With the Penguins down 3-2 after 40 minutes, Crosby willed his team back into the game with several shifts to open the third period that dictated the play. One was a penalty-killing shift in which he used his speed to create a short-handed chance. Another featured a beauty of a cross-ice pass to set up Rob Scuderi's tying goal 3:56 into the third, the kind of play few NHLers possess the vision for.
"He's a true leader for us," Therrien said of Crosby. "I thought he played a good game, created some chances. There's nights a player like this will get 2-3 points. But as long as they get chances and work hard at both ends of the ice, this is what we're looking for."
Crosby led all Penguins with five shots on goal, although his newly formed line with Fedotenko and Satan struggled at times to find cohesiveness.
"I thought we generated a few chances," Crosby said. "I still think we're feeling each other out a bit. But that's going to come with time. Ottawa's got a great team, so that's a good test for us and we generated some good chances."
The focus for Pittsburgh coming into this weekend's regular-season openers was how the Penguins would cope without star defenseman Sergei Gonchar, their top minute-eater, as well as offensive blueliner Ryan Whitney. The early results, at least on the power play, are not so good. The Penguins went 0-for-7 with the man advantage as they try to adjust without their top two quarterbacks.
"Obviously, our power play could have been more productive," said Therrien. "But I'm not panicking on this; this is something that we're going to work on. We've got quality people. There's some adjustments to be made with our power play, there's no doubt. We'll persevere and we'll be fine."
Gonchar, in particular, scared opponents with his heavy shot, keeping them honest. And he was deadly with the pass. Without him back there, the Senators seemed to pay more attention to Pittsburgh's presence down low, shutting down the short pass in front.
"We need more shots, but Ottawa is a good first-game test, they've got a great penalty kill," said Crosby. "They've given a lot of teams trouble. You have to make sure you're patient against them. We'll keep trying to find ways, but there's no doubt we need to be better."
On the Ottawa side, the story was all too familiar. Jason Spezza had a brilliant offensive game, not only with a great goal and an even better assist, but also as a constant threat all night. And yet, he once again showed his frustrating duality as a top player for the Senators, blemishing a super offensive night with a brain-cramp defensive play that cost his team the game. Spezza tried to toe-drag around Kennedy in the neutral zone with about 30 seconds to go in overtime, but his botched attempt led directly to Kennedy's winner.
"The last goal, we just have to be a little smarter," said Senators coach Craig Hartsburg. "We talked to Jason. As a team, we have to protect the puck better. We want people to challenge people with speed. But just protect the puck. Put the puck in an area where you can maybe get it back rather than having to drag it through people."
Spezza didn't make any excuses, which is why he's such a likable character.
"I've just got to be smart, put it in and take it to a shootout," he said. "I was just trying to win the hockey game and sometimes I get a little carried away and try to do it all myself. I'll learn from it and we'll get better as a team."
He said, next time, he'll dump it in when that kind of situation arises.
"It'll be the right one the next time," said Spezza. "I put it in 10 times before that and 20 seconds, trying to make something happen, sometimes that's what get's us in trouble. I'm a big boy and I can take criticism. I'll learn from it. I was just trying to win the hockey game. I think I'm becoming more of a mature of a player. I'll recover from stuff like that."
Gerber, meanwhile, gave up a goal on the first shot he faced, looking weak on Kennedy's opening strike. He gave up four goals on 30 shots and looked shaky at times.
"I think we'll have to look at the goals with [goalie coach] Eli [Wilson]," said Hartsburg. "I'm sure that there's some things there where Martin probably wouldn't be happy with."
Don't be surprised to see Alex Auld get a shot in goal for Ottawa on Sunday.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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