“Our situation,” is how Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan this week referred to his gutted roster. Teams which undergo a firesale towards a rebuild don’t give up as much talent as the Penguins lineup is missing. But no one worries if those rebuilding teams win games. The Penguins expect to make the playoffs, and after the season-ending injury to Jake Guentzel on Monday, these Penguins are facing near-impossible odds to maintain their position.
It is the fight for their season.
Many of the Penguins positive attributes were on display Thursday night in their 3-2 OT loss to the San Jose Sharks at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins fighting spirit, their ability to outskate opponents, head coach Mike Sullivan’s ability to adjust on the fly and the team’s ability to execute. But it wasn’t enough.
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NBCsn analyst Patrick Sharp caused a small stir among the Penguins fanbase on Wednesday when he named the Penguins as the most likely team to fall out of a playoff spot.
Despite the fan reaction, he’s not wrong. The Penguins have the most difficult challenge of any team currently holding a playoff spot.
In basic terms, the Penguins are missing their top-line center (Sidney Crosby, still recovering from core muscle surgery), top-line winger (Jake Guentzel, out for the season), top-pairing defenseman (Brian Dumoulin, suffered sliced tendons and out until mid-February), second-pairing defenseman (Justin Schultz, still out week-to-week and has not resumed skating), and their third-line center (Nick Bjugstad, also recovering from core muscle surgery).
Winger Bryan Rust is having a career year. Star center Evgeni Malkin is having a renaissance of game and spirit. Goalie Tristan Jarry has burst through the barriers into the NHL lineup and defenseman Jack Johnson is playing his best hockey, too.
The team can do everything right and still not win because they’re missing so much talent. And the scariest thought is additional injuries over the next 42 games are probable.
The Penguins are already utilizing all of their depth with Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola, Sam Lafferty, and Joseph Blandisi in the lineup, and will need all of them for a while longer.
Through it all, the Penguins lead Florida by six points and Buffalo by seven for a playoff spot. Under ordinary circumstances, a team with a six-point cushion in January would be a lock for the playoffs. But these are not close to ordinary circumstances, are they?
After Johnson explained the inordinate number of odd-man rushes on Thursday night (three in the first period), he then uttered the line of the night.
“We just have to keep pushing forward,” he said with a casual acceptance. Or casual resignation.
Indeed, replacing an injured player isn’t new to the Pittsburgh Penguins, nor is there anything the players can do about the bounty which the hockey gods have placed upon the health of the Penguins. The Penguins best lineup played two periods together this season. The Penguins experienced a whopping 40 minutes of health.
The team has thus far responded in the best way possible.
“I really like the discipline our team has right now, in all of its forms. Whether it’s trying to stay out of the penalty box, whether its being sharp with line changes or puck management,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “All of the details we talk about daily, and work on daily to try to get better as a group. So discipline in all of its forms is what makes a team hard to play against.”
Indeed, the Penguins no longer play the game against themselves. They do not give their opponents the opportunities to beat them, at least on most nights. The goaltending of Jarry who still leads the NHL in goals against average and save percentage has been a much-needed boost, too.
But that is what makes the Penguins challenge so stark. Thursday night, they made only a few mistakes. They allowed only two goals in regulation yet for most of the 60 minutes, scoring three goals seemed like a Herculean feat.
Kris Letang made a weird turnover in the first period when he casually pushed a loose puck towards the slot, almost as if he heard or expected a whistle. Later in the first period, Marcus Pettersson played the puck like far too quickly and pushed it back into the teeth of the San Jose attack at the defensive blue line.
Those were the big mistakes on Thursday night and the Penguins managed to earn on point. The angst over losing in overtime masked the positives, but the Penguins otherwise played as well as their lineup would allow.
“That’s something we’ve challenged these guys from Day 1 of training camp, and I think we’re making a concerted effort at it,” Sullivan said. “We’re not always perfect at it, but certainly I can see that our guys are making a concerted effort at playing that type of game, that detailed oriented game that it takes to win.”
That’s the good and the bad news. The Penguins are playing very good hockey but now their biggest challenge is talent. The rest of the NHL says welcome to the club.
But that’s also why the Penguins have the toughest challenge to remain in a playoff spot. It isn’t guaranteed and keeping it will be a tougher fight than any other team must face. Life isn’t fair, and these Penguins keep pushing forward.