You have seen this movie before, and its sequel. The 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins are using a cast of irregulars to patch holes, substitute for injured players, and even improve their lineup. The results were evident in the Penguins 6-3 win over the first-place New York Islanders as the supposedly understaffed Penguins team blitzed New York in all facets.
Yes, you have seen this movie before and loved it. The 2016 Penguins used a wave of hungry young players begging to stay in the NHL as part of their Stanley Cup. The youthful and energetic injection detoxed the stale stench which emanated from a room reeling after a few whimpering playoff exits.
The names then included Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl.
The sequel wasn’t nearly as good in 2019 when the Pittsburgh Penguins rewrote a similar, and the ending included regulars returning at the last moment. The cavalry did not save the day. The Penguins gave back their energetic, fresh play and the predictable ending was a four-game sweep by the New York Islanders.
The 2021 ending hasn’t been written, but enough of the new guys have established themselves, and the internal competition alone should keep the Penguins on their toes.
A demotion to the taxi squad is only a phone call away.
“I think these guys that have an opportunity to play at the NHL level bring a certain level of urgency and a complete level and an enthusiasm that can be contagious,” head coach Mike Sullivan said.
There are so many new guys and irregulars in the lineup that it can be difficult to keep track of them all. Frederick Gaudreau is the first that springs to mind. After setting up Zach Aston-Reese’s shorthanded goal on Thursday with an eye-popping play, Gaudreau scored his first Penguins goal on Saturday night when he finished the prettiest and perhaps most perfect breakout rush of the season.
Anthony Angello has been a big change for the Penguins, too. The big 6-foot-5, 210-pound forward has been beating and banging around in the corners. He’s provided the Penguins with at least some physical presence along the wall and a tough cycle game down low.
Radim Zohorna is a 24-year-old free agent the Pittsburgh Penguins signed from the Czech Republic. He scored his first goal on Thursday, and the bench went bonkers for him. Forward Sam Lafferty is another player fighting to stick in the show, too.
It can be tough to keep them all straight. Just ask Kris Letang. And we did.
“It’s great. I mean, it shows how well these guys develop as hockey players. We had a lot of that coming to this season with like a guy like Gaudreau and (Drew) O’Connor that comes up,” Letang said. “We have two big guys that can throw the body around with Zohorna and…I have a blank…Sorry…Angello.”
I found the honest moment from Letang amusing and refreshing. It’s a lot of new guys in and out of the Penguins lineup, and even a team leader like Letang, who is notably engaged, had to pause to think of all of the names.
Yes, Anthony Angello, the big guy from
Dartmouth Cornell who made his NHL debut last season and blocks a bit more light than all but Zohorna (6-foot-6) in the Penguins locker room.
“You know, it’s it’s great to see that these guys are out there able to perform and bring success to our team,” Letang finished.
There is no questioning that players desperate to stick in the NHL will play harder. Comfort and getting settled is the Penguins enemy. That’s when players slip or regress, and the newbie energy fades.
Gaudreau, 27, is a prime example. He spent three seasons with the Nashville Predators, but he split the first two seasons between Nashville and their AHL affiliate. In 2018-19, he broke through to play 55 NHL games but was banished to the AHL for the entire 2019-20 season.
It’s called building up a little hate. Gaudreau won’t have to think very hard to remember his NHL career is in constant jeopardy.
He has outplayed Mark Jankowski, who began the season as the Penguins third line center then slipped to the fourth line. Jankowski is now in the COVID protocol, but when he returns there is little reason for him to leapfrog Gaudreau. But the threat will be there for both players.
Lafferty squandered his big chance earlier in the season. Spotty play and bad penalties earned him a seat on the bench and a demotion. But he’s back, and his play over the last few games has been the speedy, gritty game the Penguins want.
Angello, too, has responded to the best of his abilities. He didn’t make the Pittsburgh Penguins roster out of training camp. He slotted behind players like O’Connor, Colton Sceviour, and Lafferty and the club sent him to the WBS Penguins.
With his second chance, Angello still hasn’t become a big net-front presence, but he’s tossing his weight around everywhere else. He has nine hits in his last four games and 47 checks in 16 games. When he hits, it usually more noticeable, too.
“I think when you look at the roster, we have right now, some of the guys that are in the lineup, I think have brought us a certain level of enthusiasm that has helped the whole group,” Sullivan said. “Freddy Gaudreau comes to mind. Zohorna comes to mind. Anthony Angello. Some of these guys that we put in the lineup, they’re excited to be there. They want to prove that they belong here. And so they bring a certain level of urgency to their game, and that can be contagious through our bench. And I think these guys right now are having a positive impact on our hockey team.”
The stats aren’t overwhelming, nor will they be. Gaudreau has three points in six games. Angello has two points (1g, 1a) in 16 games. But it’s not the stats the Penguins new guys bring to the table. It’s the energy and urgency to get the next puck, to win, to stay in the show.
We’ve seen it before, and there are vacancies to fill permanently. That motivation just might change the Penguins as much as play by any of the stars at the top of the lineup.
Even if you can’t remember their names.