Dominik Simon's about as overlooked and underappreciated as anyone associated with the Penguins, and not just among the public.
It was fairly late Thursday night, a half-hour after that 7-6, season-opening, overtime victory over the Capitals at PPG Paints Arena, and Derick Brassard still was crediting the wrong teammate for setting him up for what just might have been the game's pivotal goal.
"Yeah, Dumo made a great play." Brassard was telling me, "a great shot getting through like that."
He meant Brian Dumoulin, of course. Only it wasn't him. It was the guy shouting his name.
I was happy to break this to Brassard.
"It was Dom?"
This ping-pong affair, plucked right from the 1980s and padded by the bouncy new boards installed over the summer, was only remarkable anytime someone was actually being responsible. And that's what Simon is all about.
Here's the goal in a blink:
Easy to see how Brassard could be confused, right?
With the score 4-4 late in the second period, a 50/50 puck was sliding back along the left wall in the Washington zone. Bryan Rust was digging but was outnumbered by two white sweaters. One of those was the No. 92 of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who, it's safe to say, is far more adept at flapping his arms than he is at clearing the zone on his backhand.
Dumoulin saw an opportunity to pinch. He seized it. He gained clear possession.
"That's the way we play," he'd tell me unflinchingly later. "I've got to go after that."
But what happens next, as Dumoulin would add, "completely made the play." And that's because he already knew who deserved the credit.
A couple longer, closer looks:
Simon starts out down between the hashes then glides across behind Rust to offer support, in case the puck pops loose back into the circle.
This is smart.
But when the puck does pop loose, only it's up the wall, Simon sees that Dumoulin's got the best chance of pouncing. And still, rather than presuming as much and maybe going to the net for a rebound, Simon whisks back to the left point that Dumoulin had just abandoned to cover for him.
This is smarter.
Finally, as all concerned would tell me after much pestering, Simon saw that Dumoulin had his back to the inside and wasn't in much position to make a play, so he called for the puck, shouting "Dumo! Dumo!"
This is the smartest yet.
"I don't remember exactly what he was saying, but I heard him and just kind of shoved it back," Dumoulin recalled. "He did the rest."
He did. No great big Shea Weber windup needed, Simon half-slapped it toward the net, hoping for the best. And no, he had no idea Brassard was there.
"I could tell you I did, but I didn't," Simon joked with me. "I just wanted to get the puck there."
How much smarter can this get?
That's where Brassard, who had been plugging away near Rust on the boards, showed his own ingenuity and peeled back for a beeline to the crease. He slightly tipped Simon's shot, enough that Braden Holtby couldn't control the rebound, then backhanded the burial.
Imagine how satisfying that must have felt from the point:
Simon will never pile up points, so he'll never crack the top dozen of sought-after autographs on this roster. But he'll make precisely the kind of play that, as the Penguins painfully illustrated on this night, just might be the most needed.
This team, specifically, needs to pinch.
Yeah, I remember the stir from the previous time these teams met, in the second round of playoffs, when it became broadly perceived in the hockey world that Barry Trotz had blown up the Mike Sullivan system. That the Capitals were gifted all kinds of odd-man breaks early in that series because of this. That the Penguins might need to figure out a new foundational strategy in the attacking zone.
That, basically, they had been solved.
Well, I brought that up with Sullivan on this day. I asked how much he and his assistants invested in analyzing that series, for better or worse. And, to his credit, he didn't duck the subject in the slightest.
"Sure, we go through that due diligence process every summer, win or lose, and this summer was no different," he began. "I think there are certain things our coaching staff discussed that we know we can improve on. We've brought those to the attention of our players. We've tried to provide them evidence of that through the use of video, to support the way we think. We can certainly learn from all of the experiences we go through. Now our challenge is we've got to go out and make the necessary adjustments and apply the discipline of bringing it every day."
As for this specific element, the pinch, he added, "I don't want us to be careful. I want us to be selective in making the right decisions. If we're going to become the team we want to be, we've got to be a team that's hard to play against. You can become that a lot of different ways. The obvious is winning puck battles, being hard in front of your net and that sort of thing. But it's also about discipline, about managing the puck in the critical areas of the rink, making sure our line changes are sharp ... the details of our game."
Translation: The pinch isn't going anywhere.
Oh, it'll still sting at times, such as this Jamie Oleksiak foray in the second period that conceded this two-on-one to the Capitals, culminating in John Carlson's goal:
That's not a perfect read by Oleksiak, as Brett Connelly beat him to the puck and chipped it up the glass.
But where's Oleksiak's support? Patric Hornqvist tries to rumble back, but he was too deep in the Washington zone to have a chance. Sidney Crosby ... eh, even the captain's not above criticism. That wasn't his best read or best effort, to be kind.
It's all got to work together.
These guys know that, and they definitely believe it. I've surveyed the room on strategy since the start of training camp, and not a soul expressed a sliver of skepticism about any aspect of it. That's not an accident. Sullivan and his staff, as he mentioned above, don't dictate as much as they discuss and demonstrate. They want the players to understand, but they need the players to buy in.
Listen to how they speak of the pinch ...
“Did Washington solve us? I wouldn’t say that,” Olli Maatta told me, referring to the playoffs. “It just comes with execution. Pinching is a read. You always want to keep the puck in the offensive zone. You want to keep the pressure on. Now, there are times in the game where maybe the forwards are in a bad position, and there’s a danger. But you always want to be thinking about keeping the puck in the zone.”
And is the Capitals' stretch pass the antidote to pinching?
“I think that, again, comes down to the read,” Maatta continued. “You don’t want to sell the farm. But there’s 10 skaters out there. You can’t let one guy hanging out by the red line or cheating be the one who changes what you do.”
Defensemen make one read, the forwards the other. Carl Hagelin is among the latter, filling that role most commonly on the second line.
"It's always key for a successful pinch team that they have that high forward," Hagelin told me. "It doesn't mean you always have to be above their guy, but at least you've got to be in a position where you can come back with speed to be able to catch him. Our D know that. That gives them confidence in going down the wall. And our D have that confidence that they'll get to that puck. You can see that."
So, did the Capitals solve anything?
"It's hard to say. I mean, we face each other so much. They won the series last year. We won the two before that. I think it's that simple. I don't think the pinching had anything to do with the outcome. But I don't know. Maybe it did. Who knows?"
Sounds like executing it better will bring the best answer.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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