It’s mid-December and the Pittsburgh Penguins have not yet played their 41st game which is the literal halfway point of the season or figuratively reached the halfway point after the All-Star break. Yet there is already a feeling which is seeping into the Penguins locker room which is building confidence and quietly creating optimism. If they can withstand this, and play good hockey now, that only bodes well for the spring run.
The hotter the fire, the tougher the steel, right?
Short of taking Jake Guentzel or extending Evgeni Malkin’s illness, there isn’t much more the hockey gods can do to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve already had to play with emergency callups, a defenseman at forward and more than a few times used an assistant coach to complete the lines in practice. And the Penguins are still standing, some figuratively, of course.
“You can’t win every game. We had those early games with 7-2, 7-1, 7-4 or whatever, when last year it seemed that way too. When we won, we would score a lot,” said Zach Aston-Reese. “But we didn’t really know how to play in those type 2-1, 3,-2 games.”
The Penguins are 7-2-4 in one-goal games. Those four overtime losses tell more about the talent-depleted Penguins roster than it does a lack of ability to win close games. Aston-Reese’s blunt admission also speaks more about the burgeoning confidence and optimism of the Penguins room which is born of adverse survival.
Teams don’t learn how to win at the end of the season without learning how to win, now. Those lessons are laid like bricks in a foundation, and the Penguins are trying put in place as many as they can in order to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing clean sweep from last season.
The playoff loss is no longer a primary motivation or lesson, but rather it has morphed into a cautionary tale of the past.
“It’s definitely nice, especially for the playoffs,” Aston-Reese said. “We’re going to be turning the corner here pretty quick. Before you know it, it’s going to be March and April.”
“This is where you learn important lessons for the season.”
Early in his tenure, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made a bumper sticker out of the phrase, “play the right way.” Last season, Sullivan begged, demanded, poked and prodded for the Penguins to find an identity and to, “build good habits.”
As you may recall, they accomplished neither goal.
And that is what makes this season a chance for rebirth for the Penguins. Through the most ridiculous injury streak which the franchise has suffered since the hockey gods took both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the 2011 playoffs (and the Penguins still had a 3-1 lead on Tampa Bay), the Penguins are finding both an identity and good habits.
“I think one of the other things that has been a key to our success is we haven’t had two games back-to-back where we haven’t played well,” Aston-Reese said. “The other game when we lost 4-1 to Montreal, the coach thought our energy wasn’t there, and we responded (Thursday night).”
Aston-Reese has a long career in broadcasting beyond his playing days. There isn’t a player in the locker room who more consistently offers honest insight. It was brave to even breathe the word “playoffs” in December but that also drives straight at the Penguins culture and calm expectations. While fans and media (including me) hit the alarm after Crosby’s injury, the Penguins kept marching.
“With all of the injuries, guys have been stepping up. It’s easy to play when you can trust all four lines to do the right thing,” he said.
I won’t touch that last the sentence or potential (purely unintentional) inferences with a 10-foot pole.
Sullivan and the Penguins are working to escape the clutches of the injury bug and keep adding points in a Herculian quest to keep pace with the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals, who seem to never lose, in the Metro Division. The team found a way to win both games last week without Malkin, and they did so by “playing the right way,” and by showing “good habits.”
The Penguins don’t turn the puck over and most nights they grind, they compete and they buy into the system. The Penguins can no longer simply outscore opponents. They cannot win unless they do the right things. Thus far, they have 19 wins and only 10 losses.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lessons can’t all be this hard, can they?