The Pittsburgh Penguins suffocated Columbus on Thursday night and allowed the cannon-firing division rival only 17 shots on goal. The Penguins did it with at least one hand tied behind their back and nearly two, as Evgeni Malkin missed the game due to the illness which is sweeping through the locker room. And despite all of the obstacles and bad luck which has plagued the Penguins season, they are still in a playoff position and winning games.
Their formula has not wavered. The Penguins have not changed their style, and that is why they’re still winning. Unlike in recent years, their style does not rely on superior offensive talent and the ability to outscore the opponent whenever they feel like it. The Penguins style from the first day this season has been to outwork, to suppress the opposition and win the battles, literal and figurative.
And they are.
It’s also time to start wondering just how good the team can be when they get their best players back. How good can the Penguins be with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby buying into the program? How tough will they be with Patric Hornqvist stirring a hornet’s nest in front of the net?
“Given the players we’ve had out of the lineup (Thursday) we had that thrown at us, I just think the players do a terrific job of rallying around it. I can’t say enough about this group,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’re great character guys, and they don’t look for excuses.”
There was some admiration in Sullivan’s voice. The unheralded Penguins players are the backbone, and the team has set a standard of play and sacrifice which all players can integrate.
This won’t be like last March when the beat up and injured Penguins began to stack wins only to stumble when star players returned to the lineup but didn’t maintain the same gritty play.
No, now all of the players are buying in. Evgeni Malkin is proving it with points and inspired defensive play. And the roster is full of players who play fast, hard, and hungry from Teddy Blueger to Brandon Tanev and the new offensive dynamo Bryan Rust.
“It wasn’t the prettiest win (Thursday). I thought we defended hard. We competed,” Sullivan said. “I thought we made it a hard game for Columbus.”
How often in Penguins history have they been a hard team to play against? I can think of two recent examples, and both of those iterations played into June.
“Our team defense has been a whole lot stingier, and that’s been a point of emphasis since Day 1 of training camp,” Sullivan said. “That was one of our challenges to the guys coming out of camp. We have to be harder to play against. We have to value play away from the puck and the decisions we make with it so that we make it hard for teams.”
The Penguins have done precisely that.
The blueprint laid down by the team-first New York Islanders last season as they allowed the fewest goals in the league then dismissed the Penguins in the playoffs like the Soup Nazi after an incorrect order. Talent is helpful, but good hockey is better. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the rare team that can combine both if the players buy into the system.
Thus far this season, they haven’t had healthy talent, so they’ve had to win games by any means necessary. But that was the point all along; be able to win with fundamental, gritty hockey.
The Penguins are T-6 in fewest goals allowed, yet seventh in goals scored per game. The previously porous Penguins are second in Corsi percentage (shots + attempted shots). They lead the league in a stat which I can’t explain but sounds important: Expected goals-for.
In other words, the Penguins are scoring a lot but should be scoring even more.
Now, imagine an engaged Evgeni Malkin, a healthy Sidney Crosby, a Jared McCann playing in a proper position, Hornqvist stirring, Dumoulin balancing the top-pairing again, John Marino driving offense from the third pairing, and the Penguins indomitable fourth line with Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese and perhaps Brandon Tanev or Dominik Simon.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford wanted players who played a fast, team game. He succeeded. They’re succeeding.
Someday, the Penguins will be healthy. And Rutherford will be able to make a swap or two to round off some edges. The possibility of a healthy team is still several weeks away. Crosby is recovering from core muscle surgery, Dumoulin is only a week removed from ankle surgery. But, it’s not too early to start thinking just how good a team with superstars who play fast, honest hockey can be.
The pieces are in place for another long playoff run.
For now, you’ll have to be content with the Pittsburgh Penguins playing honest hockey, wins, and wondering just how deep this rabbit hole can go.