We’re just going to play. Play our own game. Play the game that gives us the best chance to win. Those were the Pittsburgh Penguins and head coach Mike Sullivan’s answers to questions about the Penguins’ response to the Washington Capitals’ physicality and Tom Wilson’s near assault of Mark Jankowski on Thursday night.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Wilson could have pulled up, turned away, or otherwise not trucked Jankowski a full second after the puck was gone.
But he didn’t.
And, I’m an old-school type. I’ve learned my pucks from the hotbeds in Canada and the toughest minor league city in North America (Johnstown). I’m not expecting much agreement. Penguins fans are notoriously dovish. Sorry, but you know I’m not wrong about that, either.
So, the Penguins got a two-minute power play in exchange for Wilson nearly putting an unprotected Jankowski in the rafters. Perhaps it’s pure coincidence (it’s not), and perhaps it had nothing to do with the Wilson hit, but look at the Washington Capitals surge after the hit.
The game log graph comes from our friends at NaturalStatTrick.com.
The Penguins chose not to address the Wilson hit in their postgame chat, other than to dismiss it.
“It doesn’t matter. The referees are going to make the calls. They’re going to call it as they see it,” Sullivan said. “We’re just going to play.”
Now, just imagine how the Penguins would react, heck, even how you would react if this were the Penguins’ on-ice response.
Vancouver chirped Wilson all the way to the locker room. Each Canuck was a foot taller at that moment. Maybe, just maybe, the Pittsburgh Penguins could use a little height enhancement rather than “just play?”
The Wilson hit may not have negatively affected the Penguins, but there is ample evidence to suggest it positively affected the Washington Capitals.
And that’s an often overlooked point when discussing physicality in hockey. The benefits are different in different situations, but there are benefits.
Tuesday night, the Penguins were outhit 26-5 in the first 40 minutes. Despite playing well, the Penguins trailed in the third period.
Perhaps with a little more rambunctiousness, the Penguins would get into the games faster? The team is tied with the Nashville Predators for the NHL lead with eight wins while trailing or tied after two periods.
The Penguins have been outscored 21-16 in the first period. If not for a recent surge, that stat was 19-11 last weekend.
But those are hard statistics drawn from a subjective situation, so disagreement is expected. Unfortunately, Penguins fans too often leap to the extreme and assume toughness means a fighter.
It doesn’t. Not anymore.
The Penguins appear to have the mental toughness down pat. The team didn’t cower on the bench, and in the third period, the Penguins worked the corners despite an aggressive crunch by the Capitals.
The overall hit count was fairly even, 24-21 in the Capitals’ favor. Zach Aston-Reese, Brandon Tanev, and others made a specific point to finish their checks.
But it’s not enough.
The Penguins need more pushback. They need the energy that comes from hitting their opponents, HARD, and sometimes, FIRST. The Pittsburgh Penguins need that mental boost that comes from hitting back or being able to hit back if or when they want.
Tanev is among the NHL leaders in hits, but he’s not a dangerous player.
“(Our response) was fine. We’re just going to play the game,” Sullivan said on Thursday night. “Teams are going to try to play physical against us. They always do. We’re just going to try to play the game that gives us the best to win.”
If you know one way that your opponent will attack, having an answer makes sense.
The Penguins have speed. Forwards Tanev, Kasperi Kapanen, Bryan Rust, and Sidney Crosby play the game at full speed. Sometimes faster. Defensemen P.O. Joseph and Mike Matheson are elite skaters and can race to spots that other defensemen only dream of.
The Penguins have talent, too.
When the Penguins last won the Stanley Cup in 2017, they too had several players who could hit back and play (our new favorite saying) “long pants hockey.” Ian Cole. Crosby. Chris Kunitz. Brian Dumoulin learned to clear the net front.
Still, that team was nearly pounded into submission on several occasions.
Other teams have closed the speed gap. And the talent gap. Maybe pushing back as hard or harder would help, too.
On Thursday night, Tanev, Sam Lafferty, and Cody Ceci had three or more hits. That’s a good start, but the Penguins lack impactful hits, someone who can impose a physical will or someone who can protect teammates.
Oh, and that person has to be defensively responsible, preferably quick on his skates, and able to chip in between five and 10 goals per season.
There aren’t many of those players, but Washington has the biggest and badest of the bunch. Like the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders, other teams in the East also enjoy a little tilly, too.
Fair warning, if the Penguins do find one, the stats may not reflect the benefit. Just as not finding one won’t specifically show up on the stat sheet either. Pushback and, in some cases, hit-back lies in the unseen feeling and emotion of hockey.
The Pittsburgh Penguins may benefit from a little of that, too.