The Pittsburgh Penguins are a top-heavy team with the most talented players of a generation. They are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, right? Not long ago that was unquestionably true. It is no longer.
No, the Penguins are no longer a top-heavy team dependent on their top line or the next Malkin hot streak. Believe it or not, the Penguins bottom-six are defining the team and providing the offense.
It’s not supposed to work that way, but that’s the Penguins’ blessing in a quarter season of chaos, and that makes them a very different team.
And, if it keeps up, a very deep team.
“…The more balance that you have in your lineup, it just helps you win more consistently because if you’re relying on one line or two lines to carry the load on offensively every night, that’s tough to do in this league,” head coach Mike Sullivan replied to PHN. “So the more balance that you have, when those guys can chip in offensively, and it just makes us a much more difficult team and play against.”
Wednesday night, the Penguins again feasted on goals by their bottom six. Such goals are supposed to be gravy, but this season’s down-line offense has been the turkey and mashed potatoes too.
While Tristan Jarry has stuffed the opposition, the bottom six, including Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen, and Brock McGinn, have basted opposing goalies.
On Wednesday night, Rodrigues scored his seventh goal. He’s second on the team lead with 14 points. Heinen has six goals this season. McGinn has five.
Zach Aston-Resse finally checked the last box on his comeback list and buried a two-on-one from McGinn.
“I thought about it a little bit just having COVID, coming back from it–For me, getting back in shape was the first box to check,” Aston-Reese said. “Then kind of being physical, being smart defensively, check all those boxes first. And unfortunately, goal scoring was the last box to check. But it’s just something that you kind of get in the mindset of–like goal scoring. And when it’s not there, you got to be able to do other things.”
Center Teddy Blueger also has five goals and nine points in 19 games.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins have four bottom-six players with five or more goals. All four are on pace for 20-goal seasons. You might think these are the early ’90’s salad days with numbers like that, but it is part of the transformation of the Penguins roster.
Sorry to reference a salad on Thanksgiving. What monsters eat salad?
In addition to offense, the Penguins bottom six also comprise the best penalty-killing unit in the NHL. Ironically, they balance the worst power play in the NHL.
It’s a different world.
The offensive output and bottom-six prominence is also a necessity. Not only have most of the Penguins third and fourth liners been called upon for more significant roles this season, but they’ve also performed their base “grinder” tasks well.
“We rely on them a lot…the defensive zone starts and killing penalties and blocking shots. And they do a lot of those thankless jobs that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet, but they help teams win,” Sullivan responded. “So for them to get rewarded with some goals, for me, I couldn’t be happier for them because I know how hard they work.”
At the risk of inviting bad luck, the Pittsburgh Penguins lines have also been stable for several games. It appeared Jason Zucker would be the next Penguins player to visit the trainer’s table when a shot block felled him near the end of the first period. He had to be helped to the locker room.
But he was back for the second period and played a full game.
Having the same lineup for four or five games is a novelty for the Penguins. It, too, is paying dividends.
“I think everybody is really finding their chemistry in the roles, and I think we’re doing a good job right now,” McGinn said. “And I think just tightening up our defense last couple of games here, and I think that’s leading to some of our offensive chances, and I think when we limit their chances, it helps us a lot.”
The Penguins are now led by the grinders and goaltending, a recipe for winning hockey beyond the regular season.
Before the season, the biggest point of worry was finding center depth and cobbling together a productive third or fourth line. After a great start, Brian Boyle has slipped to 13th forward and press box duty because of the Penguins’ depth of choices.
After fighting the system for years to regularly crack an NHL lineup, Rodrigues is on his way to permanently forcing himself into the lineup.
And the Penguins are becoming a different team. A different, deep, and dangerous team.
Editor’s note: The original story incorrectly stated Evan Rodrigues was tied for the team with 14 points. He is second behind Jake Guentzel.