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Kingerski: Anyone Else Wondering Just How Good the Penguins Can Be?

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NHL trade, Pittsburgh Penguins, Evan Rodrigues, Bryan Rust

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.

And so do the Penguins lines, which could hit later this week, or when Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker are activated from the IR, and a few more players exit protocol.

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust

Rodrigues-Malkin-Kapanen

Zucker-Carter-Heinen

Aston-Reese–Blueger–McGinn

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?

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Dave Heyl
Dave Heyl
6 months ago

I like some of the size the new guys bring because we know in the playoffs it is a size/physical/ tight game. One final wish a d man that plays physical, then we can talk PLAYOFFS & a run past the first round!!

Jackmccrory
Jackmccrory
6 months ago

I’m not sure that malkin is going to add anything to this team. In fact he may take away from it because he doesn’t do the things that have made this team successful so far this year. Play discipline and be responsible when you have the puck on your stick. Not really his forte. I guess time will tell but I’m concerned that he may be a negative

jackw
jackw
6 months ago
Reply to  Jackmccrory

Hmmm….sounds like you had a bit too much of that holiday eggnog…

Kris
Kris
6 months ago
Reply to  Jackmccrory

Agree Jack. Malkin never seems to pass the chemistry class.

Jeffrey S Knipple
Jeffrey S Knipple
6 months ago

All I know is that for the past two years I was very confused that Rodriguez was a ‘healthy scratch’ in our playoff series. For all the good moves that Sullivan has done, you really have to wonder, especially last year, why a couple of younger, enthusiastic players weren’t tried, like Rodriguez and Lafferty

Ethan
Ethan
6 months ago

Agree that it seems that Sully only shuffles lineup when forced to do so or in the early days of his tenure–this may be unfair but it does appear that periphery guys have a daunting task, sans injuries and illness, to break into lineup let alone stick. Others would say this is a testament to the depth of lineup. Maybe offense now, not so much defense. Injuries on D, and Sid ever finding his scoring touch are my concerns. ERod and Rusty aren’t gonna cash-in every night–Geno is an X-factor but Sid really needs to recapture his scoring touch, and… Read more »

Kris
Kris
6 months ago

You were making a great point, until you used the word Lafferty.

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
6 months ago

I cant believe they made me nervous even after a 6 goal 1st.

Kris
Kris
6 months ago

Rodrigues has played great. I think he looks better as a center, however, driving the play. Malkin and Kapanen are going to freelance and not follow the program. So you need a strong defensive forward on that line (Hagelin). Folks can complain about a lack of scoring, but I think they need Zucker on that line to mop up the others lack of defense. So Heinen – Rodrigues – Carter on the 3rd line seems pretty strong to me. Really interested in a Bjorkqvist – O’Connor – Zahorna line for next year. That’s they kind of size that will make… Read more »

Rob
Rob
6 months ago

Almost the same exact lineup that lost in the first round of the playoffs last season. They looked like they were going to make a run last year and ran into Sorokin and were bounced. They are a really good team and have been the past couple seasons. If they stay consistent in the playoffs and their top players don’t get outplayed by 4th liners and a backup goalie, they can go far. Every team has a chance in the NHL playoffs!

Uros
Uros
6 months ago

I’m not wondering, I have eyes. And let’s just say we haven’t even seen how this team looks with Sid playing at his full potential, let alone Malkin who we haven’t seen play at all. And still, look at the scoreboard. And I remember people saying that we’ re not a playoff team for years. Especially last year where there was the same skepticism of this year. I even wonder if the calendar changed or are we still in the same year. Barring some unfortunate event that hits our Achilles heel, which is the goalie position, this team is a… Read more »

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