Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) battle for a puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) battle for a puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

A look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, their 50th season, and some history of Pittsburgh Hockey

50 years….that’s a lot of hockey.  A half century of pro hockey is quite something.  Maybe not in Canada but pretty special in America in the 60s…even more so in Pittsburgh.  In 1967, Pittsburgh sports was down in the dumps.  The Bucs were a .500 team in between championships (’60 & ’71), the Stillers were perennial losers… another decade away from the taste of winning, the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers were brand new (eventually another failed attempt at establishing pro basketball in this town), and so were the Pittsburgh Penguins, newly coming into the National Hockey League in its first expansion.

Morphing from the American Hockey League Pittsburgh Hornets, a minor league team akin to AAA in baseball, who had just won the AHL championship Calder Cup, the Penguins would open their history with a (27-34-17) season.  The Penguins were so named by a Pittsburgh Press contest winner as they played at the “Igloo” (Civic Arena).  In fact, the Penguins had a mascot, Pete the Penguin, on loan from the Pittsburgh Zoo, who walked the ice at intermission.  He even had his own pair of skates.  Pete died of pneumonia after seven games due to warm conditions in the arena.

The Pens were made up mostly of said Hornets and other minor leaguers.  This was one of the first expansion teams from the original six dating back to 1942.  In fact, aging star Andy Bathgate, formerly of the New York Rangers, and recently shelved by the Detroit Red Wings, scored the first Pens goal and the first expansion team goal in a 2-1 loss to Montreal.  That first roster included Gene Ubriaco (who had also played for the Hornets), who would eventually coach the Pens from 1988-90.  That first roster in 1967 had all Canadians, except one American born player.

But that was then and this is now.  (We will examine more hockey history in subsequent weekly editions.)

On Thursday last, it was the season and home opener for the Pens’ 50th year of hockey, (played without the captain, Sid Crosby… concussion #3), and the raising of the championship banner for winning their fourth Stanley Cup on June 12th, seven years to the day on winning their third in 2009.

In the first minute of play, veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made two saves, Chris Kunitz fanned on a breakaway and Washington left wing Andre Burakovsky scored for the Capitals.  It’s good to start the season against your fiercest rival.  It sets the tone early on for the season.

While the Pens will never be mistaken for a heavyweight team nor a fighting one (who is anymore?), there still was room for left wing Tom Sestito to fight Caps right wing Tom Wilson in the first period…a good scrap indeed at 8:54.

While both Pens and Caps had scoring opportunities, there was much neutral zone play.  Tom Sestito had perhaps the best scoring chance midway through the second period when he was stopped from three feet out by the left leg pad of Washington goalie Braden Holtby.

Did the Pens miss their captain?  Was there a lack of high energy and grit?    The Pens didn’t get their first power play until the 12:02 mark of period two.  It resulted in a goal by right winger Patric Hornqvist that went to review.  Hornqvist re-directed a Kris Letang monster shot from the blue line.  The goal stood at 8:47 of period two.  It was tied 1-1.

A big stop on former Penguin Daniel Winnik with two minutes left in the second period proved big.  He was on the doorstep and Fleury came up with a huge save.  A scrum ensued.  Less than a minute later, Caps goalie Braden Hotlby was shaking his head as center Evgeni Malkin scored off of the back of Holtby’s left skate after a dipsy doodle move by Malkin, off of a feed from left wing Conor Sheary.

With three seconds left, Caps right wing Justin Williams did a head lock take down move on Malkin at the back boards after Malkin stuffed one on the doorstep that Holtsby snuffed.  It was a total WWF Wrestling move and the Pens would go on the power play to start the third period, which was then negated to a 4 on 4 after Malkin was called for hooking.

This was not a grand season opener.

Burakovsky scored again for the Caps at 6:13 of the third on a back pass feed from centerman Nicklas Backstrom to tie it up at 2-2.  It wasn’t the most exciting of games, let alone openers, but the Pens seem to be working hard, especially in the corners. Still, the Caps proved to be equal to the task.

Things picked up a bit as overtime loomed near.  With seven minutes left in the third, left wing Marcus Johansson came in on Fleury, with the puck fluttering on his blade, and Fleury came up with one of his classic poke checks.  The puck was kicked towards the net and bounced off Fleury’s leg.  With five minutes left, third line center Nick Bonino (of BoninoBoninoBonino fame) came in on Holtby, who made an initial save.  The puck hit the boards and came back through the paint untouched.

With just 90 seconds left, Kunitz had a dead on shot from 10 feet that went awry.  And that’s how it went with scoring chances here and there until Hornqvist had the best chance to win the game with 35 seconds left.  But as NBCSN’s famed broadcaster Doc Emrick might say…”it didnt go.”

In three on three overtime, with so much open ice, Holtby stopped centerman Phil Kessel (of the famed HBK line) from the left circle just 25 seconds in.  The Caps’ center Larz Eller hit the cross bar from eight feet out at 90 seconds in OT.  But with two minutes left, Fleury made the save of the game on right wing T.J.Oshie from point blank range.  The game went to the shoot out where Fleury is historically good, at least until last year.

Who will be the hero?  Or will there be one.

The Pens Nick Bonino came up first and missed on a wrist shot.  T.J.Oshie “Capitalized” on a wrister and the Caps took a shootout lead 1-0.  Malkin was next and scored on a forehand to tie it up at 1-1.   Centerman Evgeny Kuznetsov was next for the Caps. He came in slow and Fleury made the stop.  Defenseman Kris Letang zigged and zagged and scored. But Nicklas Backstrom scored to tie it at 2-2.  Kessel was next and his shot was so hard, it had to be reviewed to see where it actually went.  The review said it went in and out and the Pens had the lead.  It was up to Fleury now and he won the game against the Russian czar and Caps star, Alex Ovechkin, whose backhand was stopped by Fleury.

What started out lackluster ended up full of luster.  Pens win the 50th season opener 3-2

On Saturday, the former Mighty Ducks (does this mean they are the Lowly Ducks now?) of Anaheim came to town for game two of the season.  The poor Ducks have to play their first five games of the season on the road, traveling across the entire country.

Before the puck dropped, the Pens doled out their original 1967 lineup (those who are still living) and original owner Jack McGregor.  The lineup included captain Ab McDonald, Les Binkley, Ken Sckinkel and eventual Pens head coach Gene Ubriaco.  Then they displayed their first decade team which included Syl Apps, Dave Burrows, Denis Herron, Lucky Pierre Larouche, Greg Malone, Ron Shock, Ron Stackhouse and others, including former goalie and now Pens’ GM, Jim Rutherford.  One figure missing was Jack Riley, who was the first Pens’ GM, and who lived to see all four cup wins. He died this year at 97.  He was a regular press box fixture until this summer.

But that was then and this is now.

Kris Kunitz playing his 500th game (5th of all Penguin players) as a Pen faced his old team who is coached by ex-Penguin Randy Carlisle.

Near the eight minute mark, Fleury made a right pad save on Ducks forth line center Chris Wagner from point blank range.   A couple minutes later Fleury made a snow angel stop on star winger Corey Perry, after Conor Sheary found himself all alone on goalie Jonathan Bernier, making the save and making his first start with Anaheim, after being acquired from the Kings.

At 11:46 of the first, Ian Cole slapped one from the left circle past Bernier, a wicked shot, and the Pens led 1-0.  The Ducks had their first power play when Olli Matta was called for tripping with 7:08 left in the period.  A few seconds later, Ian Cole was called for delay of game as the puck sailed over the bench and over the glass.  The Ducks had a 5-3 for nearly two minutes when Duck defenseman Cam Fowler scored on the 5-3 to tie it at 1-1.

Left wing Nick Ritchie of Anaheim was called for holding at 17:12 and the Pens had their first power play.  The Pens came close to scoring when Matt Cullen bumped one off the left post during a net scrum.

As the 2nd period got underway, Conor Sheary scored just two minutes in as Bernier mishandled the puck at the right side of the net.  A scramble ensued and the puck was poked in.  It was 2-1 Pens.  On the Pens third power play, Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was called for tripping half way through the power play.  Phil Kessel came out of the corner, skated up to Benier and wristed one in a snap move and scored making it 3-1 Pens.  But at 10:27, Corey Perry scored off of the face off.  It was 3-2 Pens.

With three minutes left in the second period, Conor Sheary, sitting on the doorstep, pushed the puck outside the left post.  Then the Pens took an interference call at 2:13 left in period two.

Fleury made some key saves early in the third that preserved the Pens slim lead.  The Fleury chant could be heard all through the third.  Fleury continued to make solid saves midway through the third, including puck handling behind the net, a much improved skill for him.  And then he made them late in the period too.

With a minute left in the third, the puck was sitting on the doorstep of the Pens’ goal and was cleared by Matt Cullen.  This was Anaheim’s opportunity to tie the game.  They missed it.  To Bernier’s credit, he had to stop a lot of Pittsburgh shots,..45 in all.

The Penguins take game two, 3-2 and start the 50th season 2-0.

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