Two key injuries suffered on the same play. The Pittsburgh Penguins defensive corps was already missing top-four defenseman Olli Maatta who was injured against the Philadelphia Flyers a week earlier when they suffered a pair of setbacks which might be catastrophic for other teams. The Penguins lost top left-side defender Brian Dumoulin to a concussion after a Wayne Simmonds hit and stiff glass. Kris Letang was injured in the following melee, too.
But that’s when the Pittsburgh Penguins rallied around their defensemen.
Including that game in which the Penguins played with only four D-men, the Penguins have held a late third-period lead in the last four games. The Penguins forwards have noticeably and obviously begun paying attention to the ugly side of the blue line.
“Starting in that Philadelphia game, when we got down to four (defensemen), they really rallied around us to play a tight defensive game,” said Jack Johnson who was one of the four remaining Penguins defensemen. “The D that were left took a lot of pride in trying to hold down the fort.’
Those four defensemen included Johnson, Justin Schultz, Marcus Pettersson, and Chad Ruhwedel. Ruhwedel isn’t one of the Penguins top-six defenders but he was pressed into service after the Maatta injury and played nearly 25 minutes. The battered Penguins needed more than those four defensemen to play out of their skates. They also needed help from the forwards who too often have eschewed defensive responsibilities.
“I think that kind of took a step in the right direction for us all, as a team,” Johnson said. “It’s also getting to that point in the year. Games ramp up, get tighter defensively.”
Yes, it is that time of year but the Penguins slept through the alarm clock last season. They played some firewagon hockey in Round One against Philadelphia which was beset by awful penalty killing and bad goaltending. However, when the Penguins attempted to tighten their game for the Round Two slugfest against the Washington Capitals, it was the Penguins who faltered.
“It’s the natural progression, the way the season goes,” Johnson concluded.
The Penguins have held late third period leads in their last four games and have points in all four. They’re 2-0-2 because of first period breakdowns and a bad bounce in Buffalo and because Matt Murray didn’t make a pair of saves he admittedly should have made in Philadelphia.
For the first time this season, the Penguins are being rewarded and even lauded for their defensive efforts. They smothered the Columbus Blue Jackets and quickly took the game away from the Montreal Canadiens. Both Columbus and Montreal are the teams closes to them in the playoff standings.
“You have no choice. That’s the way the season progresses and we’re at that point,” said Johnson. “We’re into March and ramping up for playoff hockey.”
Johnson obviously wasn’t around for last season as the team couldn’t or wouldn’t adopt that defensive feel or playoff style. The Penguins recent push to cover their own zone even has fans warming to Johnson who has spent the season as their main target.
It wouldn’t be the first time this Penguins core has used adversity to their advantage. They won the 2017 Stanley Cup with a patchwork defense after Letang required mid-season neck surgery and was out until the following season. The playoffs this season are not guaranteed but if the Penguins continue to play defense, and their goaltending holds up, not only will they make the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out.
After all, if the Penguins want another Stanley Cup push, as Johnson said, they have no choice. And for the moment, they’re embracing it.