It didn’t take long for the Pittsburgh Penguins to re-emerge. Just 48 seconds into the game Tuesday night, slick Penguins rookie defenseman John Marino made goal lights flash, and the put the home crowd in a much better mood. After the goal, which was both a harbinger of things to come and an erasure of recent worries, the Penguins cruised to a 7-3 win over the Ottawa Senators at PPG Paints Arena.
Last Friday in Anaheim, in their next-to-last west coast game, the Penguins defensemen mustered just five shots on goal, and Jack Johnson had three of them. Things didn’t go well in what became the Penguins fifth straight loss.
We knew Marino and Brian Dumoulin would boost the Penguins. Of course, everyone will say. But just how much the Penguins changed and in how many ways affirmed the high value of both the Penguins hopes this season.
“They have a lot of subtleties to their game that help us get out of our end clean to the puck,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’re both just real good players, so they help us create balance throughout our pairs. They help our penalty kill. There are so many aspects of the game that they help us. It just makes us a better team.”
At the risk of feeding some of the misinformed bashings of Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson, who was pressed into service as the Penguins defensive lynchpin on the top defensive pairing, those aren’t the same qualities which Johnson brings to the table. Johnson again took one for the team by assuming that role, as he did last season when he spent the first five months on his backhand.
Things with Johnson and Kris Letang as the top pair didn’t go so well, and it hampered the Penguins. But the difference on Tuesday night was startling.
“I was more excited to play than anything. It has been a while, and I just wanted that opening faceoff to come,’ Dumoulin said. “it was a lot of fun, and the guys helped me out a lot.”
Dumoulin missed almost exactly three months, dating back to his left ankle injury on Nov. 30, when an errant skate blade severed his tendon. The Penguins 6-foot-three, 207-pound defender reminded everyone just how valuable he has become.
As Dumoulin helped the Penguins quickly transition ahead of the Ottawa neutral zone defense, the Penguins also achieved the pairing balanced, which Sullivan referenced. No longer were Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel the third pair. Tuesday night, that pairing was veterans Justin Schultz and Johnson.
“You could see it from the very first shift, when (Marino) scored. Those guys were great. They’re such huge parts of this team,” Bryan Rust said. “They help us breakout. They help us play offense. They’re such good penalty killers, good offensively. Having them back was good.”
The second pairing was also an upgrade as Marino took the right spot with Marcus Pettersson.
“When you get guys of that caliber back, it’s always going to help the rotation,’ the soft-spoken Pettersson said. “Just their overall poise, and it’s a healthy competition who wants to be on the ice.”
Without John Marino, the Penguins offensive push took a hit. With Marino, the Penguins lit the lamp in just 48 seconds. They won’t do so every game, but the efficiency with which Marino stepped into the open space and put the puck on the net made the goal possible.
“It was a good screen by Rusty, and the puck went in,” Marino laughed.
Sullivan had praise for Marino, too. He succinctly described Marino’s value.
“He’s big and strong. He can really skate. he defends well, he has a good stick, and he is brave,” Sullivan said. “He’s willing to take hits to make plays. He has those subtleties to his game. He can hang onto the puck, take a hit and make a subtle pass, a four-foot pass that helps us get out of our end clean with possession.”
The Penguins Harvard rookie has been a revelation this season. The Penguins second pairing elevation was noticeable with Pettersson, too. Pettersson has struggled at times this season and appeared to be out of sorts again over the recent stretch with Schultz.
Like a magic wand, the Penguins return of Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino erased those ills on the top pair and the second pair. The Penguins pasted the lowly Ottawa Senators, but they also should have pasted the lowly LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks. But they didn’t. Perhaps they couldn’t.
“They’re both great players, great skaters, puck movers,” goalie Matt Murray said. “They’re poised with the puck. They’re both just really good defensemen.”
The Penguins, which have overcome injuries all season, were reminded that not every injury is about the next player up. The difference was striking. So too was the result. The Penguins not only got players back in their lineup, but they also got a much-needed win.
And in the process, they looked like the team they’re supposed to be.
John Marino Locker Room Video: