The building was empty, both teams were wearing the same logo, and the rules and clock were creatively manipulated. But a hockey game was played Sunday evening at PPG Paints Arena.
Team Gold, led by Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, topped Sidney Crosby’s Team Black, 5-4, an an intra-squad tune-up for Wednesday’s opener in Philadelphia.
“It was really fun to be able to actually put on a real jersey and get out there,” said forward Sam Lafferty, who scored the game’s opening goal for Team Gold. “It felt like a real game. Emotions are going to be a little higher, and I think overall it’s just a lot more fun to go and do that. We’re looking forward to getting started and playing a lot more games.”
The game, intended to simulate a game night and one with hopes of getting the team accustomed to the speed and physicality of the regular season, was in some doubt this weekend.
The Penguins canceled Saturday’s practice and scrimmage out of an abundance of caution for a potential COVID-19 exposure within the organization.
“We knew this was going to happen throughout the whole year,” said forward Mark Jankowski, who found the net twice for Team Black. “I bet every team is going to have something like this going on. You can see with the MLB, NFL and NBA, all those leagues, every team has had little bits of adversity like that.
“We talked about that on the first day of camp. That’s going to happen, but we just have to roll with the punches and control what we can control. We’re doing everything we can to mitigate the risk and have any big outbreaks.”
The arena staff pumped in fake crowd noise and Mike Sullivan did not join the team on the bench, electing to watch from the stands. The periods were 18 minutes long and included forced 3-on-3 play, followed by shootouts.
The game was a proving ground experience for some younger members of the organization, such as 22-year-old Drew O’Connor, who Sullivan has highlighted as a pleasant surprise during training camp.
O’Connor, like many young players, has tried to improve while dealing with the uncertainties of the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” said O’Connor, who was able to play competitively in Norway during the fall. “It’s been a challenge for everybody, but especially a young guy who hasn’t played in any games yet. I’m just trying to do what I can, every day, to keep improving.”
In addition to the goals by Lafferty and Jankowski, Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Mike Matheson and Jason Zucker all found the net.
The Penguins will make up Saturday's missed practice on Monday.