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Kingerski: Now We’ll Find Out if this Penguins Team Worth Saving



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, NHL news

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ heart worth saving?

Their march toward a playoff berth has more often resembled the legs of a staggered boxer. All season, it has been less of a march forward and more like two steps forward, a couple sideways, and a couple back.

Bad losses have come at key moments when the team should have been at its best but instead was at its worst. The team has used the word “inconsistent,” but the colder reality is they didn’t get up for big games and have looked like a team ready to be done too many times.

And yet, within the deepest hole they could dig for themselves, they’ve started to climb out, only to find that injuries will add to the struggle.

They have been without Jake Guentzel, who was injured on Feb. 14 against Florida and will be out until at least March 10 after the team placed him on long-term injured reserve. Beginning tonight in Vancouver, they will be without fellow top-six winger Bryan Rust, who is out week-to-week after suffering an injury Sunday in the 7-6 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Penguins History

I’m reminded of 2019 when injuries decimated the Penguins’ lineup. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin were injured in the late February Stadium Series game against Philadelphia. To that point, the Penguins were flat and fighting to make the playoffs.

A few weeks later, they were six points clear, and it looked like the March of the Penguins II.

We don’t need to rehash how the 2019 team went down in flames in Round One, oddly after they got everyone back in the lineup, to cite the lesson: When this core is pushed to the wall, they usually push back harder.

Last year was the exception to the rule. With a playoff spot firmly in their grasp and a tired, weak opponent on home ice, the Penguins flatlined. That team never had it, and the dark clouds surrounding the soon-to-be-fired Ron Hextall/Brian Burke management team only added to the misery.

The 2023-24 Penguins should be much better than they’ve been and certainly better than the struggle bus version of themselves from last season. This team should have it.

Yet this season remains an unknown.

In vintage fashion, the Penguins needed to add a higher degree of difficulty before winning games. With a four-game homestand last week and losing control of their playoff chase, the Penguins lost the first two of those games. They squandered a third-period lead to the LA Kings, proceeded by an energetic but mistake-filled overtime loss to one of their chief rivals, the New York Islanders.

Following two hard losses, almost with a wink and a nod, the Penguins played two uneven, sloppy games against the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers. And won both.

Without Rust, Jesse Puljujarvi will get as good of a shot as he ever will to reclaim his NHL career and the pedigree that came with being the fourth overall pick in 2016. He’ll likely draw into the lineup beside Evgeni Malkin for a week or more.

Emil Bemstrom, whom the Penguins acquired via trade last week for Alex Nylander and a conditional sixth-rounder, will get more ice time, too. He scored in his first Penguins game Sunday when he took the puck off the back wall and walked it to the net, beating Flyers goalie Cal Petersen.

Bemstrom is also on his second chance after failing to stick in the lineup with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

However, let’s be brutally honest: not much is expected from Puljujarvi and Bemstrom. They’re not coming in as equal replacements or even as established NHL players. They’re reclamation projects.

More offense will need to come from players such as Erik Karlsson and Reilly Smith.

The Penguins lineup on paper is suddenly much worse, and they shouldn’t be able to keep up with the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, or the Flyers.

And yet, that’s what this team has done more often than not. They overcome adversity that looks too great. They win when they shouldn’t.

“I think it probably starts with our captain and the leadership that we have in our room and understanding what’s at stake. These guys never look for excuses. We’ve always had that next-man-up mentality,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “Injuries are part of the game. Every team goes through it. We’ve got to find a way to rally around it and put our best game on the ice. When when you look at some of the guys we have out — and we have some key guys out right now — we can make up for that with collective effort and inspired play.”

Inspired play will tell us this team has it. They may struggle for offense or look shorthanded against a few good teams on this trip, but effort — as Sullivan likes to say — is one of those “controllables.”

If they cannot muster a hearty challenge for a playoff berth and succumb to the shortcomings created by Rust’s and Guentzel’s injuries, it will launch to the sky a great signal that the Penguins’ dynasty has concluded.

Now, we will see if this Penguins team has the same heart and desire they’ve had for nearly two decades and if it is worth saving or if they should be dismantled by the NHL trade deadline.