Fans and media like to cite it, but players often dismiss it. Momentum from game to game is one of the great intangibles which cannot be objectively factored and perhaps does not even exist. Players such as Sidney Crosby have downplayed it in the past but this season the Pittsburgh Penguins have been on a roll. Through losses and wins, the Penguins have built on each game until they utterly dismantled Philadelphia Tuesday night. The Penguins also shutout Dallas on Saturday.
Just how good can the Penguins be?
Their record is only 8-5-0, which is not an overly impressive total but there is something more happening with the Penguins. Because in the past, players have downplayed momentum, I asked Bryan Rust if he believed in it. The Penguins speedy winger gave an answer which made sense.
“Yeah, (I believe in momentum). With that breeds confidence and that can go a long way,” Rust said.
After a couple of stinkers in the first three games, and worries the Penguins would redux their soap opera filled 2018-19 season, the Penguins rallied. Even in losses, they gleened positives and confidence.
Saturday, the Penguins should get Evgeni Malkin back in their lineup. The injury plague which visited the Penguins will be officially over and we will begin to discover the Penguins potential.
“We’re obviously happy with the way we’ve played most of the games here,” Rust said. “We’ve got to continue to try to build off that and not take our foot off the gas.”
Predicting the Pittsburgh Penguins and their ceiling will not be easy. The organization, perhaps for the first time in a long, long time, adopted an approach that sought the right players, not the best players. Brandon Tanev and Rust dot the Penguins lineup with others like Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. On paper, the Penguins are not a great team but the New York Islanders nor Carolina Hurricanes were great teams last season.
The Islanders comparison seems particularly appropriate as the Penguins have become a deep team with speed and physicality. It appears they’re buying into their head coach, and winning games by outworking their opponent. Take that concept, add Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel and suddenly the Penguins ceiling is far greater than the sum of their parts.
“I think last year we had a sour taste in our mouth with the way things ended. We brought in a lot of guys that bring a lot of energy,” Rust said. “That meshes the guys who are ready to get back at it. It’s been meshing well and we have a lot of energy.”
It’s dangerous business to make predictions based on 13 games in the regular season, and 13 October games, at that. But I’m going to tell you something–it’s OK to buy into this team. They will not break your heart through a lack of effort or a bad attitude. This Penguins incarnation may be as solidly built as the 2016 team which won the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins defense which was adequate now seems to have a chance to be more with the emerging rookie John Marino on the third pairing, balanced by Jack Johnson.
That’s not a Stanley Cup prediction just yet, but that is an acknowledgment this team is different. There is an energy and an emerging identity. Something is different and it feels new. With Rust and Tanev, the Penguins have a plethora of wingers with superior speed who can make life difficult for opposing defensemen which creates puck possession. Simon’s uptick in production with Hornqvist’s return to normal gives the Penguins offensive depth.
“I just like the way we’re playing the game,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “You can’t always control if the puck goes in the net or not, but you can control your attitude, your effort, you can control your attention to detail.”
And, despite the calendar, the Penguins played as if October hockey mattered. They’ve certainly not done that before.
The Pittsburgh Penguins confidence is growing. Their full potential is not yet known, and that could be a very good thing.