The Pittsburgh Penguins have played exactly one game with their full roster and will not do so for the foreseeable future while winger Patric Hornqvist is out longer-term and we await more updates on top defenseman Kris Letang. Center Evgeni Malkin is still getting into game shape after missing one month, and third-line center Nick Bjugstad is searching for his rhythm after missing a month, also. Yet Thursday night against the New York Islanders, we will learn as much about the Penguins as we have in the past month.
The players and coaches may downplay the game as just one of 82, but this game is different, even in the not-made-for-hockey the Barclays Center. The Penguins may not be ready for it, but ready or not the Penguins will face a division rival constructed on the new-NHL platform specifically designed to beat teams like the (former) Penguins. And the New York Islanders always relish that opportunity.
Ready or not, this is the biggest test of the Penguins season. New York has won 10 in a row and they are the blueprint for teams to build a team-first locker room culture that follows its head coach. with a fast, aggressive, honest game.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Journey
The Penguins set about changing their culture and style this summer.
You may recall the New York Islanders and their head coach Barry Trotz embarrassed the far more talented Pittsburgh Penguins with a Round One sweep last season. Like a comlete pantsing during a school assembly, or proving the emperor had no clothes, New York exposed the Penguins and sent them on a soul searching summer.
If the Penguins beat New York, would GM Jim Rutherford have been as aggressive retooling the roster with honest, hardworking players like Brandon Tanev? Would the Penguins have given up the ghosts of Stanley Cups past?
New York and Trotz hold a special place for the Penguins. They love to beat them. While New York has been the hockey equivalent of couch-surfing for years, the Penguins featured the most talented players in the NHL. The Penguins ended Trotz’s seasons for the first three years of his Washington Capitals tenure, until Trotz and Washington broke through for the 2018 Stanley Cup.
New York has been dominating opponents. They’ve trailed for only 95 minutes, despite giving up the first goal six times. In keeping with the New York philosophy, they win games with a team effort. four players have four goals during the stretch including former Penguins center Derick Brassard, who is playing a top-six-winger role.
New York is relentless and determined. They are also regimented and disciplined. During their 10-game win streak, New York has been shorthanded only 30 times. They’ve killed 29 of those penalties and scored one shorthanded goal.
Everything the current Penguins iteration wants to be, the New York Islanders are.
Monday night, the Penguins dominated the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins. The Penguins had nearly a two-to-one shot advantage and scoring chance advantage but lost 6-4. They also dominated Edmonton on Saturday but lost 2-1 in OT.
The Penguins are playing the right way, but waiting for the results.
Last April, New York patiently waited for the Penguins to make mistakes, then pounced. The New York game plan was as perfectly drawn as it was executed. This season, New York is finding new levels to their game. The Penguins will not get cheap goals, unearned open looks or free pucks in the corner.
From Sidney Crosby’s top line against Matthew Barzal’s top line to the Penguins’ “buzz” line with Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev against the New York fourth line with Cole Bardeau which is rated one of the best in the NHL, the Penguins will have to fight for each opportunity. And they will have to finish their opportunities because they probably will not get many.
Sure, each head coach will have a systematic wrinkle or three for the other but this game especially will be won with execution and effort. There’s no other way to beat the technically sound New York Islanders.
The Penguins might be without the “straw which stirs the drink,” Kris Letang. They’ll be without their primary agitator and human energy factory Patric Hornqvist. No one ever said life was fair, but Thursday we’ll find out where the Penguins are in their quest to remake themselves into an honest team capable of beating good NHL teams.
It’s just one game, but it will tell us so much about the Penguins. A loss might expose their shortcomings; Trotz has a habit of doing that. A win will be a just reward for recent hard work and further encouragement to continue along their path.
It is just one game, but it’s the first game this season which means something. The bitter taste New York left with the Penguins last April may be cleansed but it is not forgotten in the locker room. It’s still occasionally referenced.
Don’t kid yourself. A bad loss would reverberate. Another loss would be frustrating. A win would make everything better. Thursday, we will find out where the Pittsburgh Penguins stand.