And so it begins. Again. The Pittsburgh Penguins season, that is. They will have been off exactly two weeks when they host the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon. Assuming there are no relatively last-minute issues that cause further postponements, of course.
So let this serve as a primer — a refresher on where things stand. a look at what the lineup might look like and what to expect for that game at PPG Paints Arena.
*The Penguins were riding a seven-game winning streak as of their most recent game, a 3-2 win Dec. 19 over the Devils in New Jersey. After that came five postponed games, most recently Friday at Ottawa, due directly or indirectly to the COVID-19 pandemic, plus the NHL’s realigned Christmas break, equaling two weeks.
*Four of the eight players who went into the league’s COVID protocol during the time off have come out of protocol and are available to play. They are defensemen John Marino and Mike Matheson, and forwards Dominik Simon and Evan Rodrigues. The former three returned to practice Saturday; Rodrigues was out of protocol a day earlier.
Matheson indicated he did not have symptoms and noted that “I was fortunate enough to have a little gym set up at home so I could keep working out.”
Marino also said he was asymptomatic.
*Still in protocol as of Saturday were centers Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger, winger Kasperi Kapanen and No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry. None will be available for Saturday. In addition, center Brian Boyle, who missed practice Saturday for what the team termed personal reasons, won’t be available for Sunday, coach Mike Sullivan said.
That throws the center position into flux. Evgeni Malkin is close to returning but has ruled himself out for Sunday. He manned the second-line center spot Saturday at practice.
After top-line center Sidney Crosby, the guys down the middle could include Drew O’Connor, Sam Lafferty and perhaps Rodrigues. Overall, to reach 18 skaters, taxi squad forwards Kasper Bjorkqvist and Anthony Angello could be in the lineup, or the Penguins might opt to dress seven defensemen, but that is something they don’t normally seem inclined to do.
*Casey DeSmith is expected to start in goal.
Jarry, Sullivan confirmed, is one of the players in protocol who has had what he called “very mild symptoms,” but Sullivan admitted that “I don’t know when Tristan will be available to us. That, I think, will be a day-to-day thing.”
DeSmith, as the backup, has had an even longer layoff than the team. He last played Dec. 11, a 33-save shutout in a 1-0 win against Anaheim. That followed a 28-save performance Dec. 6 in a 6-1 win against Seattle.
Those two games together marked a noticeable turnaround for DeSmith, who struggled in his first four starts, going 0-3-1.
“I feel good. I’m really excited to play,” said DeSmith, who is expected to be backed up Sunday by taxi squad goalie Louis Domingue.
While all the Penguins are vaccinated and are taking precautions, breakthrough COVID infections are happening. For as long as Jarry is out, DeSmith is an important figure.
He’s doing what he can.
“Just be extra careful. Don’t take unnecessary risks,” DeSmith said. “Obviously, you still have to go some places, whether it’s the grocery store or whatever, but for the most part wearing a mask and not going anywhere unnecessary.”
He has indulged in one of his non-hockey passions.
“I like to spend some time outside and play a little disc golf. There’s been some warm weather lately,” he said. “Not going to get COVID in the woods.”
*The Penguins could be at somewhat of a disadvantage in that while they have not played a game in two weeks, the Sharks have played twice since the Christmas break ended, a shootout win and an overtime win.
The Penguins have held several practices, worked on lots of aspects of their game and have held full-rink scrimmages during the down time, but there still could be a layoff “hangover” of sorts.
“These guys are used to playing three-plus times a week, and so when you get out of that routine, I just think there’s a little bit of an adjustment process,” Sullivan said. “For me, the biggest thing is just the mindset and the compete level because it’s hard to simulate that in practice. There’s a certain intensity with respect to an NHL hockey game that is very difficult to simulate.
“Keeping the games simple is going to be an important aspect. It’s going to allow us to get into the hockey game, take a little bit of the thinking out of it, so that we can play on our toes and use our speed and things of that nature to get involved in the game.”
Or as Matheson said, “You have to treat it like the first game of the season.”
Which it might feel like after the long layoff.