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Phil Kessel scored two goals in his preseason debut and while the competition was pretty low, the chemistry between Sidney Crosby and Kessel has been there from the first practice in camp and it was on display tonight in the preseason home opener just moments into their first shift together.

There’s often all this talk about Kessel’s speed and shot, but what really stands out from an offensive standpoint is his play away from the puck in how gets himself open and gets to the right spots.

“He hits holes off the puck really well,” Mike Johnston said of Kessel. “If Kunitz gets the puck or Sid gets the puck, they turn and Kessel is already hitting an open spot. It’s like a receiver at the right time hitting the hole and I just thought he was very good at that.”

— Mike Johnston tonight was happy with how Chris Kunitz fit on the line and called Kunitz one of the leading candidates at this point to start the year with Crosby and Kessel.

“What he [Chris Kunitz] has to add to that line or whoever plays there, Kunitz is probably one of the leading candidates right now….. I like Kunitz when he goes hard to the net, plays that straight ahead game,” Johnston said.

As mentioned before, what the Penguins are looking for in that top-line left spot is someone with straight line speed who goes to the net, why Pascal Dupuis will also get strong consideration, though, sources say management prefers to see Dupuis worked in a little slowly this season, starting in a bottom-6 role.

The pace through the neutral zone that Crosby and Kessel play with together was obvious and watching Kunitz have to bust his butt to keep up in the neutral zone tonight makes you wonder if Kunitz’ old legs (in hockey years) become an issue as the season progresses.

“I like Kuni’s jump,” Johnston said of Kunitz tonight. “I thought he had a lot of jump. Good legs, he’s had good legs all camp. It looks like he has a lot more energy. That’s a positive sign for him right now.”

— As for the left wing spot on Evgeni Malkin’s line, the thing to watch moving forward is whether there’s enough skill on the wings.

The Penguins are most dangerous when Malkin is putting the puck in the net at a 40+ goal clip.

Sergei Plotnikov did some good things tonight on Malkin’s wing. He protected the puck well down low and the skating looks stronger than anticipated so far.

What he’s not is a creative player who can get the puck to Malkin in prime scoring opportunities and at the end of the day, David Perron likely emerges as the best fit to give the Penguins a more complete line.

On Plotnikov the positive with him is he projects as someone the Penguins should be able to play all over.

“I thought he had a very good game,” Johnston said of Plotnikov’s first preseason game. “Thought he was physical, thought he went to open ice well. Big body guy. If he can play a give-and-go game, sometimes he hangs on to the puck in practice too much, but if he can play that give-and-go game, that’s when he’s most effective. He can skate, has some size, good puck protection. Where he can play in our lineup, he can play in a lot of spots.”

— The Penguins coaching staff wants more offense from the blueline this year and got it early tonight with Kris Letang and Olli Maatta scoring the first two goals of the game for the Penguins.

It was playing the Penguins system to perfection where both Letang and Maatta joined the play with great setups from Evgeni Malkin who had the primary assist on both goals.

— If you’re looking for an intriguing defensive pair it’s Ian Cole and Adam Clendening moving forward.

6. Sergei Gonchar scored a power play goal and showed excellent poise on the man-advantage. “Real good job on the power play. Gonch is a real good power play player. He moved the puck well. Good deception,” Mike Johnston said.

We knew coming in he could still play the power play some, it’s in his own end where the red flags are at this stage in his career. Gonchar didn’t do anything tonight to minimize those concerns.

Gonchar was on the ice for three goals against and was stuck in his own end for most of the night at 5 v 5. Gonchar’s analytics were rough tonight, on the ice for 8 shot attempts and 23 Want the Full Story? Get "Inside Access"

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William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at

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