More than a few athletes use doubt and low expectations as motivational fuel to enhance performance. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward seemingly had a chip permanently attached to his shoulder. Things are a little different in the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room.
If there is a team which has been doubted, discounted or written off, the Penguins qualify. Many doubted them to make the playoffs, even if healthy. Simply recall our Facebook page and comments. The vociferous “merchants of can’t” were relentless. More than a few national pundits put the Penguins outside the top-eight, too.
Then the injuries started. Continued. Then they multiplied. Things should have gone sideways. First, Evgeni Malkin missed a month. Then Sidney Crosby embarked upon a two-month absence, and more than a few folks prepared 2019-20 season obituaries.
In full disclosure, I didn’t write an obituary, but I expected dark times. Instead, the Penguins have piled wins, including three in a row. Tristan Jarry is the NHL No. 2 star this week after a pair of shutouts. Bryan Rust is pouring in points like a veteran sniper, not a grinder. And Malkin has fulfilled his promise to be fire.
Has anyone ever told you no, and you delighted in serving their words back to them? Are the Penguins also enjoying proving the doubters wrong?
PHN had a few conversations in the locker room Monday before the Penguins visited Children’s Hospital. Perhaps it’s the hockey culture which is more stoic than others, but there was some resistance to admitting it.
Brandon Tanev flat out denied it.
“No, I don’t think that. We have a good team and a good group of guys,” Tanev replied. “We’re confident in ourselves and the team we have in the dressing room. Whoever is out there, we want to play the same way and get those two points.”
The players in the Penguins locker room have reflexively expressed belief in each other despite what should be an oppressive reality that too much talent is missing; they should be struggling. There’s never been any acquiescence to the negatives of the injury epidemic. There’s been some gallows humor. Smirks and shrugs. But there hasn’t been any doubts or pity.
The questions have been similar daily.
Pittsburgh Penguins grinder Zach Aston-Reese took a healthy and glass-half-full approach to the question. He pondered it for a moment. It’s not about proving others wrong or gaining that satisfaction.
“I don’t look at that way. An opportunity opened up to get some more playing time. It’s not really against anything or anyone,” Aston-Reese said. “When those guys come back, they’re going to be in the same spot as they were when they left. So for the time being, it’s just getting our game to a level that’s going to complement them.”
Call it a silver lining. After being pressed into second-line duty or third line service, when the Penguins get healthy, those players will have their legs and those who used the time to elevate their games.
Bryan Rust has played up and down the Penguins lineup. He’s also been with the Penguins through a pair of Stanley Cups and the fall. He’s become one of the leaders in the Penguins room, and he was one of the few to admit proving talking heads wrong does bring a particular motivation.
“To an extent, yeah. After we had a lot of guys go down, there were a lot of people doubting if we could win games and keep our season afloat,” Rust said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of playing some really good hockey and putting some games together.”
And Rust noted the opportunity.
“We also have some guys seeing some increased roles, some young guys who came into the lineup, and some guys who are playing (further) up the depth chart than they’re used to playing and they’re trying to make the most of it. And that’s helped the team a lot.”
Rust is having a breakthrough year, too. He has 17 points (9g, 8a) in just 16 games and he’s been on all sides of the equation. He’s been the young guy thrust into the lineup. He’s been the guy bumped up the depth chart fighting for more, and now he’s a veteran who is responsible for some of the slack caused by the rash of injuries.
Rust has also been around long enough to hear the talk and know the dire situation the team is facing. For Aston-Reese, it is an opportunity. For Tanev, it may just be about the next puck, and next shift and playing well.
Opportunity, effort, hunger with a little salt to prove people wrong. It’s been the Pittsburgh Penguins holiday recipe.