Since the Stadium Series game in which the Pittsburgh Penguins lost both of their top defensemen to injury and were forced to rally around not only each other but an actual commitment to defense, the team has earned points in 13 of 15 games. They are just one point behind Washington for the Metro Division lead.
Since that rainy game in Philadelphia, the Penguins have taken steps and strides towards the team head coach Mike Sullivan demanded they become. And he is noticing.
In fits and starts and spurts forward and back the Penguins gelled. Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist on the third line are the rug which ties the room together. The Penguins lineup no longer has a black hole of puck possession or offense in the middle. Jared McCann has been a revelation to the Penguins and perhaps himself as he’s poured in 11 goals since arriving from Florida with Bjugstad on Feb. 1.
Just imagine when the Penguins get Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang healthy.
The Penguins earned seven of eight points on their four-game road trip. If not for a late game-tying goal and overtime loss in Carolina, the Penguins were about two minutes away from a four-game sweep.
“I think it was a great road trip,” head coach Mike Sullivan said about the Penguins finally winning an overtime game as they did in Nashville or salting a victory in Dallas without the horrors of a heartbreaking game-tying goal. Perhaps he was even giving credit to earning two points in New York despite not bringing their best game.
As we’ve noted too many times at PHN, regular season hockey is about the “how” not always about the result. And for the first time in a couple of seasons, the Penguins are winning games with defensive engagement, hard play in the low zone and secondary scoring. They’re winning with honest hockey.
Of course, a coach can’t get too flowery.
“By no means are we satisfied. We’re going to try to win every game but I really like how our team is trending,” Sullivan said. “We’re playing hard, we’re playing together. I think we’re becoming a team.”
Since Justin Schultz returned from a broken leg in mid-February, the Penguins defense suddenly became stout. Jack Johnson moved to his natural left side, and Erik Gudbranson arrived from Vancouver with hopes of a fresh start and a little guidance.
It only took top defenseman Letang getting injured, and a gaggle of fresh faces without a playoff win between them for the Penguins to shed their three-packs-a-game turnover habit, defensive confusion and incessant need for perfect plays.
That’s right, all of the Penguins new additions–Bjugstad, McCann, Johnson, Gudbranson, Marcus Pettersson, Teddy Blueger, and if we’re being literal Zach Trotman have never been a part of an NHL playoff series win. And each has talked about coming from different environments but being excited by the Penguins leadership and the chance to be a part of winning.
You may remember Johnson’s mangled words of praise for the Penguins at his introductory press conference which set off the Columbus organization from the GM to head coach John Tortorella.
The Penguins are playing with hunger which was demonstrably missing last season. Perhaps the newbies are hungry to be a part of the glory which the core of the team has already shared three times. The new players haven’t yet been conditioned to treat the regular season as an annoyance.
After saying his team was coming together, Sullivan laid out the simple philosophy for the Penguins which have five games remaining.
“We’ve got five opportunities to put ourselves in the best possible position. Our first goal is to make sure we make the playoffs,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins magic number after their win shrank to just six points. Any combination of the Penguins gaining points or Columbus Blue Jackets losing them shrinks the Penguins magic number.
“I think our players are aware of the opportunity in front of us. But the way to accomplish it is to stay in the moment and not get ahead of ourselves,” Sullivan concluded.
However, for those of us who can look ahead, the Penguins are tied with the New York Islanders for second place in the Metro Division and just one point behind Washington for first place, pending New York’s and Washington’s results Tuesday night.