Like Greek mythology, the gods have aligned against the Pittsburgh Penguins but the team keeps charging. Friday night, the hobbled Penguins won their 27th game of the season and their second game in a row on the west coast road trip as they overcame a last-second goal to beat the Colorado Avalance 4-3 in OT at the Pepsi Center.
The team is getting game-winning goals from Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann, who were both fourth line players before the Penguins acquired them. The team is getting stellar goaltending from a recently struggling goalie and a near rookie who was selected to the All-Star Game, and exceptional play from a rookie defenseman and a seldom-used spare d-man.
And, Bryan Rust set a career-high in goals (18) despite playing only 30 games this season.
The hockey gods be damned, the Penguins just keep winning.
In the second period on Friday night, the hockey gods even redirected a puck like a bad B-movie involving angels in the outfield. Goalie Matt Murray attempted to play a lobbed dump-in by Gabriel Landeskog but the puck bounced hard right and changed direction by a few feet. It eluded Murray and gave Colorado a 2-1 lead.
It’s been that kind of year for Murray. And yet the Pittsburgh Penguins kept charging. The Penguins gave up more chances and puck possession in the third period, but managed to score a pair of goals. Murray won his third game in a row and outplayed his counterpart Pavel Francouz.
“I thought he responded real well. I thought he had a solid game,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “Obviously, that fluke goal is a tough one, but I really like how he responded to it. He didn’t let it get him down.”
Because of the pile of Penguins injuries, Jared McCann has not only been pressed into duty as a center but the second-line center. Over the past two months without all-time great Sidney Crosby, the Penguins have climbed from a wild-card position into second place in the Metro Division.
“It’s great. Our team has been playing hard as of late and we’ve earned these last couple of games,” said McCann who scored the OT winner.
The Colorado Avalanche used their home-ice advantage to match one of the best lines in the NHL with stars Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog against the former Penguins fourth line with Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, and Brandon Tanev.
After the first period, the Penguins line won that battle and even chipped in a goal.
“I thought (Blueger) had a great game (Friday) night. His line played a lot against MacKinnon’s line. I thought they did a really good job against one of the top lines in the league,” Sullivan said. “The (Blueger) line is dynamic, and Teddy was a big part of that.”
Blueger had a goal and an assist on Friday. He has 16 points (6g, 10a) in 44 games and is on pace for about 30 points, which is the level of production Matt Cullen provided from the Penguins bottom line in the Penguins 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs.
For you classic movie buffs, this is the point when Harry Hamlin slays a comically bad claymation figurine while the Greek gods grit their teeth.
Pittsburgh Penguins winger Dominik Kahun is in his second year in North America. He didn’t score 40 points last season with the Chicago Blackhawks and was acquired for expendable defenseman Olli Maatta. Yet Kahun has become an offensive driver and had three assists Friday night.
“It doesn’t surprise me. The reason we put him (on the top line with Evgeni Malkin) is we think he can make plays,” Sullivan said. “And that’s what he does.”
“He’s real elusive in tight space. He’s quick. I think he helps (Malkin and Bryan Rust). He’s a good playmaker.”
After a painfully slow start this season, Kahun has 29 points (10g, 19a) in 44 games. He should sail past the 40-point mark, unless the hockey gods claim him via injury, as they’ve claimed nearly every significant Penguins player, forward and defenseman. That list includes All-Star winger Jake Guentzel who is lost for the season and a list which is more significant than any IR list in the NHL, according to mangameslost.com
When Crosby was injured and required surgery, the team should have fought to tread water, not win 17 of 27 games and get points in 21 of them. The hockey gods’ wrath has only emboldened the Penguins.
Leadership has come from other sources, too. The crazy bounce which eluded Murray raised the Penguins game.
“I thought the chatter on the bench after it happened was great and Patric Hornqvist in particular really took some leadership,” Sullivan complimented. “…I was walking off the bench but some of our other coaches shared with me that (players) waited for Matt and made sure they gave him a tap on the pads and encouraged him. That’s an indication of the type of team we’re becoming.”
Crazy bounces. Injuries. And what should be insurmountable challenges. The hockey gods be damned. The Pittsburgh Penguins just keep winning.