The Pittsburgh Penguins should have been flatfooted pylons in the way of the San Jose Sharks on Sunday. The Sharks had two previous games in the past week after the extended NHL holiday break, which a COVID outbreak necessitated. The Penguins had not seen game action since Dec. 17 yet won their eighth in a row in a crazy 8-5 victory over San Jose.
The Penguins’ mid-game slump was to be expected. The only way to get into game shape is to play games, which the Penguins haven’t in nearly three weeks. The team was without temporary second-line center Jeff Carter, who popped by the COVID protocol for a stay. Instead, Evan Rodrigues took his place and promptly scored a hat trick.
Bryan Rust admirably filled in for Rodrigues on the Penguins top line…and promptly scored a hat trick.
“(Rust has) established some really solid chemistry with (Sidney Crosby) and Jake (Guentzel). And I think he brings that element of speed to that line that helps the other two guys. I think the other two guys help him with how they think the game and their ability to hang on to pucks and make those little small, little plays in traffic that allow them to create opportunities for themselves,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins needed a trio of rookies in the bottom six, including Kasper Bjorkqvist, who made his NHL debut…and promptly scored his first NHL goal. What, no hat trick?
The next-man-up cliche is well-worn and tiresome. Whether it was Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin who first used it, or another football coach using words to avoid answers, it’s become everything but a t-shirt in the Pittsburgh Penguins universe.
But in the fog of absences, injuries, and illness, the Penguins have found a few diamonds in the rough. On Sunday, the Penguins had a fourth line comprised entirely of AHL players, and their third line centered by Drew O’Connor, a 2020 undrafted free agent who would be a center six-deep on their depth chart. The fourth line scored a goal and third-liner Brock McGinn hit two, maybe three posts.
And the Penguins put up eight goals.
“(Rodrigues) is helping us generate offense. He’s got good offensive instincts. In his performance to this point has earned the opportunities that he’s been given here,” Sullivan said Sunday. “So as we start to get healthy guys back in the lineup, I just think it makes us deeper. It gives us more offense on a different amount of lines.”
This team is really going to stink when they have to play Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, and Teddy Blueger, eh?
We haven’t yet mentioned Sidney Crosby and his role, either.
Pittsburgh Penguins Coming Battles
A few more hidden twists and turns await the Penguins in the next 51 games. The schedule through March and April will be brutal with make-up games and as many, if not more, games than off days. For the injury-prone Penguins, the arduous schedule they’ll likely encounter will be a dinner bell for the injury bugs.
And who knows what COVID has in store for us. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, every time we think we’re out, it pulls us back in.
But every team is going to have similar challenges. So, I’ll ask the question and my conclusion may be obvious. Just how good can the Pittsburgh Penguins become?
We’ve written numerous times about Evan Rodrigues. We’ll do it a few more times, too. On Sunday, his hat trick was the culmination of slick hands and hard shots. Perhaps Bryan Rust will be the Penguins big trade deadline acquisition as he becomes an in-house rental. His contribution to the Penguins top line was immediately evident on Sunday as he set up the game’s second goal and scored a pair of first-period markers.
“It sucks being out. It does, and I was just happy to be back in the lineup out there, playing again and being around the guys and doing all that,” Rust said. “And to have the night I did was just kind of a cherry on top.”
The Penguins, without their best, have already caught the Washington Capitals. They dispatched the Capitals during their current eight-game winning streak, 4-2, at Capital One Arena, and it was one of the quietest Penguins’ visits to D.C. in 15 years. The Pittsburgh fans on the steps after the win provided more energy than inside the barn that night.
These Penguins have that ability; they can take opponents and opposing crowds out of the game. The formula has been simple: a better forecheck, puck possession, steady defense, puck management, goaltending…and finishing ability. Add depth and depth scoring, and the Penguins formula is suddenly a playoff formula, too.
I’m not alone in wondering, am I? This was supposed to be a borderline playoff team. Even after points in six straight games, the Philadelphia Flyers are already a country mile behind the Penguins. Boston is between one and eight points back based on games in hand. And Detroit is eight points back, but the Penguins have one game in hand.
In other words, the Penguins’ chances to make the playoffs already look pretty good.
The Penguins have center depth (Drew O’Connor, Brian Boyle) and versatility (Rodrigues). In a worst-case scenario, Sullivan could even flip Jeff Carter to the right wing, where Carter played his final year in Los Angeles and where Carter slotted at practice on occasion last week.
The Penguins also have a wild card with Rodrigues. With the moves he flashed on Sunday, his emergence is a game-changer and another top-six forward capable of scoring at greater than a 30-goal pace.
However, to gauge the Penguins’ long-term chances, you can’t simply look at their lines in a vacuum. We must compare to their closest competitors. The Washington Capitals still have Backstrom-Kuznetsov-Eller down the middle. However, Washington’s bottom-six is no longer the strength it was as Conor Sheary and Daniel Sprong typically highlight the group.
Carolina presents a deep middle. Sebastian Aho-Vincent Trocheck-Jordan Staal-Derek Stepan. Their wingers, such as Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov, are scorers, but their numbers don’t include the goal production equivalent of Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Carolina also has a high-scoring defense, and in the past, the Penguins have struggled to defend teams that use d-men on the rush or who come late on the play.
Carolina is a very good team, but the “Storm Surge” has won only one second-round series in three years. Their playoff record is 3-3 over the last three years (not including a Qualifying Round win during the 2020 bubble), which is better than 0-3 but does not put them in an elite or unbeatable category.
Yeah, the Penguins could win the series against either.
So, am I alone in wondering just how good can this Pittsburgh Penguins team be?