The Pittsburgh Penguins star players are feeling the pressure of time slipping through their fingers but also the excitement of renewed opportunity.
After a swift kick in the pants on opening night in which the Penguins blew a two-goal lead, the team rose to pair challenges last weekend. They exploded for three goals in the second period against the Washington Capitals, and the Penguins won 4-0. They popped five goals in the third period the following night against the Calgary Flames for a 5-2 win.
The Penguins are speaking, but this time, it doesn’t feel like lip service.
The scoreboards on Friday and Saturday showed Penguins victories. More importantly, the final scores demonstrated the level of urgency and emotional engagement the Penguins brought to a potentially negative situation following an ugly loss. Sure, it’s only October and not even late October, but the Penguins are putting the heat on themselves.
While captain Sidney Crosby downplayed the team turning up the thermostat after losing to Chicago on opening night as early season enthusiasm, defenseman Kris Letang and winger Bryan Rust fully confirmed it, and the reasons are exactly what you think. Letang dramatically put the situation into perspective for Pittsburgh Hockey Now, both underscoring the impact of last season’s failure and the offseason of change.
“I think we all know in what position we are, especially the few guys that are on the older side, and they see that the runway is a little shorter and shorter,” Letang admitted Tuesday. “So I would say that the level of commitment and discipline is pretty high–I think you said for October–but I think guys know that it’s a great opportunity that we’ve got. And obviously, with what the management did this summer, they really proved that they’re here to compete for a Stanley Cup.
“So it still has to translate to the ice.”
Letang, 36, is no longer the Penguins top defenseman. That honor belongs to Erik Karlsson, who won his third Norris Trophy last season when he scored 101 points with the San Jose Sharks, and the trade for Karlsson was the coup of the summer. His arrival has only emboldened the Penguins core, who already have three Stanley Cup rings, to believe again they can convert those daydreams of carrying 43 pounds of silver into reality.
That opening loss might have been the perfect chaser for missing the playoffs last season. Blown leads, especially multiple-goal third period leads, were an anxiety-inducing problem last season. The angst that quickly spread through the fan base after another blown lead in the first game of this season seems to have been at least partially shared inside the Penguins locker room.
Spurred by the fear of a repeating situation, the team squashed Washington and Calgary in successive third periods. Neither team had a chance to get back in the game once the Penguins took it over.
“I don’t need to talk about it (with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). I think we know,” Letang said.
Pittsburgh Penguins Motivations
The third period in the last two games has been especially impressive but for different reasons. The Penguins deflated the puck against Washington, allowing just three shots on goal and zero high-danger scoring chances at even strength. The Penguins allowed three high-danger chances in the third period against Calgary on Saturday, but the game remained well in hand for the final 15 minutes.
It seems watching the playoffs on TV, followed by an opening night whoops, also reminded Bryan Rust of the stakes. Rust has returned to his quick and gritty self in the early season. He was good last season, but perhaps not up to his standards or potential.
Rust had 20 goals and 46 points in the previous campaign, but that was down from 58 points. This season has three goals in three games and four takeaways. His on-ice contributions are obvious, as is the team’s push.
“I think a lot of guys who were here last year know that the points in points in October do mean the same as the ones in March,” Rust said. “So I think that’s kind of our mindset here. We can’t take anything for granted early on, and we’ve got to play for every point we can get to when we can get.”
They may not need to discuss it with each other, and some might downplay it, but the on-ice actions speak loudly. The Penguins’ game has been far from perfect and full of errors, but they’ve also been engaged in the process.
For a veteran team to value October games as much as the Penguins shows that perhaps last season’s lesson was learned.
The optimism created by adding Karlsson may be as important as Karlsson himself. Missing the playoffs may also prove as important as making them. As Evgeni Malkin chided on Saturday, it’s just three games, but it does look and feel like a different team and situation, even with the same core players.
April and the end of the journey are a long way off, but Letang’s humility and conviction were striking. There won’t be many more opportunities for a core that is now 36 or older. It seems they understand that and are feeling the extra motivation that comes with it.