The theme began to emerge earlier this week. The Pittsburgh Penguins players are saying similar things, but it doesn’t appear to be a coerced message to deflect media scrutiny or a cliche. The Pittsburgh Penguins are winning games in different ways but with a few constants. Even as they are missing four prominent forwards, the Penguins are becoming a team.
After the inner turmoil of last season, the new feeling must be rewarding — chemistry matters in hockey.
“We’re playing really good hockey and we’re all supporting each other all over the ice. We’re playing for each other and it’s a great feeling right now,” Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist said Friday night.
Hornqvist’s sentiments are similar to what Joseph Blandisi, who is one of the emergency callups, said to PHN earlier this week.
“I got that first-hand when I got traded here last year. I didn’t really know anybody coming into this organization, and within my first road trip, I was invited to dinners with the guys, even some of the older guys I looked up to growing up my whole life. That was pretty cool. It definitely goes a long way if you get good chemistry in the dressing room, and guys play for each other on the ice.”
Five wins in a row count for 10 points in the standings, but the wins may be worth much more to the Penguins, which struggled with a team identity and cohesiveness last season. Even a couple of early-season losses had more than a few wondering aloud if this team would be a repeat of last year.
Sometimes talented teams win games despite themselves, and that axiom is almost part of the Pittsburgh Penguins culture.
What has been missing from the Penguins culture for the last couple of seasons is the musketeer philosophy. In a microcosm of Hornqvist’s point, boos reigned down on the ice Friday night, but not for the Penguins. The Pittsburgh crowd booed the Dallas Stars who were stuck in their own zone with the puck because the Penguins did not break formation on their 1-2-2 trap, and Dallas didn’t have a path forward.
So the Dallas defensemen stood flat-footed with the puck in their zone, unable to skate or pass the puck forward.
The Penguins didn’t break ranks and stuck to their roles. How different is that?
“They wanted to transition really fast, but we were always in their face,” Hornqvist said. “There were a couple of really good backchecks, too that denied scoring chances. We’re playing for each other. It’s fun right now.”
Whether winning breeds fun or fun breeds winning is another matter. The Penguins are winning with three players who are technically still AHL players because they’re on emergency recalls, Sam Lafferty, Joseph Blandisi, and Adam Johnson. But that seems a matter of semantics now. Head coach Mike Sullivan corrected a wayward reporter who used the “AHL guys” monicker this week (No, it wasn’t us. We learned that lesson in 2016), but the recalls are earning more ice time, too.
Friday night, Blandisi and Johnson played more than eight minutes. And they played well, too. Johnson nullified a pair of icing calls, and the Penguins fourth line worked the puck low in the Dallas zone and maintained possession. Since it was a tight game, that Johnson and Blandisi were on the ice in high leverage situations speaks to the team concept.
“Regardless of who is in our lineup, we believe if we play the game this way, we have what it takes to beat anyone,” Sullivan said.
Belief is easy to have in a group. It is even easier to have in a fun group, which is rewarded for doing good things. Who knows, if the Penguins struggle with better players in their lineup, they may not hesitate to make changes because everyone sees the same thing. A unified team that plays for each other can be a lot of fun.