Without stars, Pens dump Panthers in opener
Neither rookie Joe Vitale nor veteran Richard Park was a lock to win a roster spot when the Penguins opened training camp.
So, each man could be forgiven for smiling after their impact on a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday at Consol Energy Center in the Penguins’ home opener.
Park’s first Penguins goal since Oct. 7, 1995, and Vitale’s assists on goals by Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke shaped a third win in four games to open the season.
The Penguins once again found a formula for success without three of their best players: centers Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (undisclosed lower-body injury), and defenseman Brooks Orpik.
“Obviously it’s a cliche, but we need to get contributions from everyone, particularly when we’ve got (Crosby and Malkin) out,” Penguins forward Craig Adams said. “We can still get better. We’ve been good for stretches, but obviously we’re not doing as well as we should be with a lead.”
The Panthers twice pulled within one on center Marcel Goc’s goal in the second period and left winger Tomas Fleischmann’s tally early in the third.
However, after blowing a third-period lead Sunday at Edmonton, the Penguins twice restored a two-goal cushion after the Panthers pulled close.
A strong in-and-out move by center Jordan Staal at the end of a long shift led to right winger James Neal’s tap-in goal in the third to make it 4-2. With two goals, Neal has matched his Pittsburgh total from 27 games last season, including seven playoff contests.
Getting to the prime scoring areas, as the Penguins did on the goals by Dupuis, Cooke and Neal, was the intention against Panthers goalie Jose Theodore.
“Just playing in their end is our mentality as a team,” Staal said. “Grinding teams down; we need to do a better job of that.”
Vitale continued to perform with the blend of poise and confidence he displayed throughout training camp. He fed Dupuis from behind the goal line in the first period, then deftly sent a backhand pass to Cooke on a rush in the second.
Those nine games as an injury replacement last season paid off.
“Absolutely,” Vitale said. “I came into camp this year just more confident … just ready to play, ready to skate.”
Swift skating and defensive instinct have been Park’s hallmarks. He flashed both to get credited with a 15th career short-handed goal late in the second. A slap shot by Park hit the post behind Theodore. Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov attempted to clear the puck but accidentally swept it over the goal line.
In Park’s only other Penguins home opener, he also scored a short-handed goal.
“Different building, different sounds,” Park said, referring to the old Civic Arena. “A few miles on the body since then, but anytime you can contribute at this level it’s definitely a nice feeling.”