Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gave what might have been his best answer this season to a question about the Penguins’ recent winning streak and the accompanying gritty, if not ugly, hockey that precipitated victory.
The Penguins haven’t played poorly, but they have played differently. Harder. They have been more determined and committed to the little things like puck battles and wall play, at the expense of “offensive hockey” or “speed” game.
“I don’t know how you define gritty hockey or ugly hockey. I think it’s beautiful hockey,” Sullivan said. “You know, we’re playing the game hard. We’re competing hard.”
If you indulged the PHN Penguins grades Sunday night instead of reveling in the calendar flip to 2024, you saw the longer version of the quote. The undeniable truth is the Penguins are winning games in new ways that don’t necessarily conform to or resemble the game the team has tried to play for years.
The Penguins are using more bodies to defend their net. They’re denying rebound chances and making opponents work for scoring chances. Defensive gaffes aside — the Penguins are still far from perfect in that aspect — the team made the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders work for everything.
And then outworked them.
Sure, the Penguins are still trying to play on the rush when it’s available, but they’re not forcing it or giving away possession when it’s not. Against St. Louis and New York, the Penguins noticeably held the puck in the low zone and fought for space.
No, really, the Penguins have been fighting for space around the net and baring their teeth in the dirty areas.
The Penguins have a natural talent advantage on nearly every team they’ll face. There are a few that might boast more offensive chops, but not many.
Interestingly, the Penguins’ role players stepped to center stage over the holiday weekend. Jansen Harkins earned an assist in each game over the weekend on a pair of two-on-ones. Lars Eller let rip for two goals against New York. Noel Acciari scored.
Bryan Rust & Drew O’Connor
The 6-foot-4 Drew O’Connor has points in three of the last four games, including a pair of goals. He’s not only adding his name to the scoresheet but playing a bigger game, too.
“I think he’s learning how to use his size, his strength, his reach, his skating ability,” Sullivan said. “He’s a powerful guy. When he uses his frame the way he’s capable of, I think he’s a whole lot more difficult to play against … I think when (Evgeni Malkin’s line) has possession, he’s going to the blue paint, he’s going to the net front, and he’s getting rewarded. I think he’s starting to figure out how he can play to his strengths.”
Rust, who is the Penguins’ grittiest forward not named Sidney Crosby, was a full participant in practice on Friday. His return from an upper-body injury that has kept him out of the lineup since early December seems imminent.
Perhaps getting absolutely embarrassed by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada, lambasted by the press, and a few jagged words in the locker room pushed the message across the goal line.
This is a different team than we’ve seen in a long time. Not since the second half of 2019 when injuries beset the team? Not since 2017, when they knew their legs were gone and gutted out an impressive Stanley Cup run?
And they’re getting the best goaltending they’ve received since 2016 and 2017, too. Perhaps the work by Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic shouldn’t be overlooked either.
According to MoneyPuck.com, the Penguins have a 52.4% chance of making the playoffs, which is the eighth-best percentage, and are on pace for 92 points.
Ryan Graves, Erik Karlsson
Scapegoats. Once you enter the social media doghouse, there’s almost no chance to get out. When you attract the fan angst or anger, it’s more like a tattoo than a backpack.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ three-game winning streak and earning points in seven of eight games hasn’t always been great hockey, and everyone is looking for areas to improve. Defenseman Ryan Graves has admittedly struggled to adapt to the Penguins system.
Graves played a pair of much better games over the weekend. Yes, he was left exposed a few times by Erik Karlsson’s turnovers, but most noticeably, Graves was very aggressive at the defensive blue line. He played confrontational gaps rather than soft, and the result was a lot of stymied rushes, a few turnovers, and one goal directly resulted.
Keep an open mind.
No one is quite sure what to make of Karlsson’s recent skid. He scores points, but his puck management has recently been terrible.
Another recent target was Harkins.
The Penguins grind-line mullet is closer to a borderline 4A player than an NHL regular, but there’s little doubt about his skating, energy, or effort. He’s got a good burst, his game has a little edge, and he is a bit of a spark plug. I believe he’s a better option in the lineup than Radim Zohorna.
Harkins’s lack of offense at the NHL level compared to his high-level production at the AHL level is interesting, but he’s not the first or last to remodel his game to stick around at the next level.
The line with Lars Eller and Valtteri Puustinen might be found money. They were exceptional against the Islanders, and the three forwards touched the puck, leading to Eller burying the two-on-one early in the game.
The goal settled the Penguins and changed the game; it’s a lot easier to play with a lead, especially against an angry opponent.
Harkins, like fellow waiver wire pickup John Ludvig, have been useful additions.
The other Penguins’ offseason acquisitions, Graves, Karlsson, and Reilly Smith, are still integrating and not always in sync with the team concept.