Just before snowflakes the size of pizzelles began falling upon the city, the Pittsburgh Penguins followed up an off-day with an optional morning skate. Bryan Rust drew big laughs from Sidney Crosby after their game of hallway soccer.
The Penguins have won eight of 11 and have recently discovered a few aspects of their game that have long been dormant, including gritty play around the net and a new dose of resilience.
The Penguins seem to be a loose bunch.
But only the eight or 10 usual suspects participated in the on-ice portion. One of the players who typically skates is winger Valtteri Puustinen. When PHN asked how he’s holding up under the NHL grind, he channeled his inner Alan Iverson.
“Yeah, I love (the schedule). I love to play,” Puustinen said. “My (least) favorite is practice. Here, we play — not all days — but we play so many games, and I love that. My body feels good.”
Puustinen delivered the quote with his trademark happy smile and a lip healing from a high stick, denoting a guy who is enjoying his NHL voyage.
In 12 games, Puustinen has seven points and one goal. Since Bryan Rust returned to the lineup this week, he’s been part of the Penguins’ third line with Lars Eller. The line has significantly elevated its output, especially the revamped trio with Drew O’Connor on the left wing.
Eller has three goals in his last three games, including two against the New York Islanders on Dec. 31.
Penguins Net Front
The Penguins Grades over the last few weeks have harped on the structural change occurring with the Penguins. The years of playing on the perimeter or forcing the rush are giving way to playing around the net.
The Penguins have been scoring goals by the bunches within feet of the net.
“I don’t want to say it’s been an area of emphasis within the last couple of weeks. It’s been a process to get us there,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s something that we’ve been working on since training camp. When you look at the evolution of the NHL, how goals are being scored in the league, and the way teams defend with shot blockers, layers of defenders, and collapsed coverage — you can’t just rely on offense off the rush when teams have numbers back.
“You can’t just rely on your power play. You have to develop a grind game.”
The Penguins, led by Crosby, have dedicated themselves to that down-low game.
Perhaps it was the beatdown administered by the Toronto Maple Leafs on national TV or the realization that if things didn’t change, they were in deep trouble.
A little youth, a few bounces, a few more wins, and the return of Bryan Rust have been important. Getting pucks and bodies around the net has been more important.
“So we’ve talked a lot about using the width of the zone and depth of the zone in order to open up the good ice,” said Sullivan. “And then we’ve got to get the puck there. But it makes no sense to get the puck there unless we have people there.”
The Crosby and Eller lines have been especially good. Noel Acciari’s line with Jeff Carter and Jansen Harkins has sprung to life, too.
The Penguins have the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, then the Philadelphia Flyers on deck. A win over Philadelphia could be one of those turning points to remind the Flyers they’re still rebuilding but will also cap six games in 10 days.