The Penguins are getting booed. It's opening night in Pittsburgh -- six months after the Penguins were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders -- and all summer, chatter has been about improving the team's chemistry and transforming the roster to be both younger and faster.
But the Sabres, who finished with the fourth-worst record in the East last season, are running all over the Pens. At one point, Buffalo holds a 14-3 edge in shots, with at least two careless giveaways leading to odd-man rushes. The boos from PPG Arena are subtle but noticeable at the first-period buzzer. They return when the game ends, a 3-1 Buffalo win.
In the locker room afterward, Evgeni Malkin gives a grave state-of-the team address the likes of which he usually reserves for midseason. "They [were] hungry. They played so much faster," Malkin says. "We take a couple bad penalties, and they changed [the] game. It's a young league right now -- we need to play hungry, we need to play faster, every puck we need to win. It's not good for us how we played. We need to change."
The following morning, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford sits in his office at the team's practice facility. He too notes how quick Buffalo looked. "The expectations in Pittsburgh are very, very high," Rutherford tells ESPN. "You're expected to win a championship every year, and if you don't, then everybody analyzes it. People talk about how hard it is to win a championship, then people talk about how hard it is just to get into the playoffs. In the NHL, there's so much parity now, it's hard to just win a game. There are no easy games."
Rutherford was frustrated that his team "never came together" last season. He rewatched the four playoff games this summer -- not ad nauseam but enough "to get a handle on what happened," he said. The GM said Games 1 and 2 could have gone either way. "Once we went down 2-0, we just didn't play as well," he said. "When I go back and look at those first two games, we could have won those first two games, and it could have been completely different. But last season, the team never had that total team togetherness. I think some of it came from players being content. I don't blame them for being content -- there's been some good success here over the last four or five years -- but you can't be content to be successful going forward. So that had to change."
Since 2009, the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings have won eight of the 11 Stanley Cups. But since Los Angeles won its last Cup in 2014 and Chicago in 2015, both teams have struggled to retool on the fly to sustain that success; they've been saddled with bloated, aging contracts, and for at least the past two seasons, neither team has looked like it is on the brink of contending again.