The Pittsburgh Penguins might have something for the best of the NHL.
They might not.
The biggest mystery surrounding Pittsburgh has not been the potential existence of the Smiley Face Killers or what the Steelers were thinking last spring when they built a patchwork roster just good enough to be mediocre, but how good the Penguins can be.
There are moments.
They flexed their muscles on Thursday night. Despite failing behind 2-0 and 3-2 in the third period to Vegas Golden Knights, they won 4-3.
“I loved our mindset — just kind of next play attitude, next shift attitude,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “I think when we play that way, we’re capable of competing with any team in this league. That was a good hockey team to beat tonight.”
The Penguins cocktail is unique because it is most potent with adversity. The more adversity, the stronger the drink.
Down the stretch in 2019, the Pittsburgh Penguins rolled through the NHL despite a revolving door of injuries, including top defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. With a decimated roster, there was Hart Trophy talk for Evgeni Malkin in 2020 until a slowdown leading into the last few weeks before the pandemic cessation.
And again, on Thursday night, facing one of the best teams in the NHL a couple of days after learning the shocking news that Letang had a stroke, the Penguins played their most aggressive, energetic game of the season.
“Yeah, we held on to pucks. That’s what we’ve got to do. We found a way to get on the forecheck and create turnovers, and with that, we got zone time,” Sidney Crosby said. “So it’s a lot of fun playing that way, holding on to the puck, making teams defend, and starting in the offensive zone. So we got to continue to do that.”
They’ve had other great games this season. They squashed the Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg after a couple of bad games and fear of another losing streak. Just for fun, they took their hated-rival Philadelphia Flyers out of the game early.
And the Penguins had a great start to the season, too, in which they scored 24 goals spread over four wins.
After two months of this NHL season, the inescapable conclusion is that the Penguins are not a good team. They’re not a bad team. They are as good as they want to be.
Perhaps it’s unavoidable with two Hall of Fame centers, a true no. 1 defenseman (most likely a Hall of Famer), and a third-line center with extensive NHL history all in their mid-30s. The Penguins “young” legs are generally in their later 20s and are now experienced NHL players.
The kids have grown up. Jake Guentzel is 28. Teddy Blueger is 28. Tristan Jarry is 26. Even Kasperi Kapanen is 26 and eight years removed from his smiling draft day pictures.
Add extra motivation, add adversity or need, and the Penguins almost invariably rise to meet the challenge. But leave them to their own motivations, and you might get a lackluster team or a Stanley Cup contender on alternating days.
Lose seven. Win three. Lose two. Win five.
The same kind of team that didn’t seem to panic during a seven-game winless streak.
Nor did they take too much enjoyment from a five-game winning streak.
They seem to exist unto themselves, unaffected less by external situations and more responsive to internal needs and motivations.
The NHL’s oldest team didn’t even need to discuss Kris Letang’s absence and the need to fill his primary lineup position. Marcus Pettersson played perhaps the strongest game of his already strong season. P.O Joseph also played his best game of the season.
“I think it just understood, and it’s not something that needs to be talked about that much. I think you see the way the guys compete and rally,” said Crosby. “And I like to think we have a lot of effort every night, but it seemed like there was a little bit more desperation (Thursday).”
So, how good are the Pittsburgh Penguins?
For better and worse, they are as good as they want to be.