CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Jack Johnson struggled for an answer. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman wasn’t downtrodden Wednesday – that would be difficult after such an inspiring win the night before. He just had a difficult time putting into words how a win like the won over Colorado can carry over and extend into a strong stretch.
“I think it just does,” Johnson finally came up with.
That’s what the Penguins are hoping after the 6-3 win, on in which they took a 3-0 first-period lead, allowed the Avalanche to come back and tie it in the second. Patric Hornqvist then took over, scoring a natural hat trick in a club-record span of 2:47 in the third.
There wasn’t any overly bad news coming out of practice Wednesday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Winger Dominik Simon, who left Tuesday’s game in the first period, is day-to-day because of a lower-body injury, coach Mike Sullivan said, something that could be a relief considering Simon couldn’t make it back into the game over two periods.
Defenseman Kris Letang, had a second maintenance day off of practice after missing Monday’s workout. That is a sign he is dealing with something minor, but to this point it isn’t affecting his availability for games.
The injured Matts, goaltender Murray and forward Cullen, continued to skate separately from the club.
So the task becomes living up not only to Hornqvist’s performance Tuesday, but his declaration after the game that “this is the turning point of our season.”
The 11-10-5 Penguins have had a handful of games — inspiring wins and gut-wrenching losses – that could have been turning points, good or bad. Yet the club hasn’t found consistency.
Or identity, as winger Zach Aston-Reese noted. He said the Penguins addressed the need to make sure that third-period groove Tuesday is a place the team needs to stay.
“That’s something that we talked about as a group. It’s just our approach to the game and our mindset,” Aston-Reese said.
“I think our response (Tuesday) night is something that we need to do moving forward. I don’t think we’ve done it in the past. The game against Tampa (a 4-3 loss), the game against Buffalo (a 5-4 overtime loss) where we were up two or three goals, they knocked on our door and we don’t answer. But (Tuesday) night was a great response from us. I think as a group we’ll be able to bottle that up.
“In the team meetings and stuff like that, we talk about our identity. Playing consistently in our (defensive) zone. We’ve been supporting each other better. When we get away from that, even if it’s for a 10-minute span, that can’t happen. They scored three goals in 10 minutes (Tuesday). We got away from playing defense and having a smart third forward back. I think it’s those little details – keeping them to a tee for a full 60 (minutes).”
Johnson, who signed with the Penguins last summer, marvels at that identity. Not so much the specifics such as defensive-zone play, but the demeanor.
“I mean, this is the first time that I’ve been on a team that’s won a Stanley Cup in their history,” Johnson said of the Penguins, whose most recent titles were in 2016 and ’17. “So yeah, it’s a cool thing to walk by the Stanley Cup banners every day. There are a lot of guys in here that were integral parts of those Cups. I think a big part of them is they’re pretty even-keel. They don’t get too high; they don’t get too low. They attack each day the same way.”
That that’s why Johnson thinks this time, after that game, the momentum could carry over for nights to come.
“I don’t know if you know it immediately. I think that was a great win for us against a really good hockey team,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just the group of guys we have in here. We’ve got a confident group of guys.
“A lot of these guys in the (locker) room have won multiple Cups and have had a lot of success. I don’t think that they’re doubting themselves.”
The lines and pairings at practice:
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust
Tanner Pearson-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-Reese/Derick Brassard-Phil Kessel
Riley Sheahan-Derek Grant-Garrett Wilson
Brian Dumoulin-Juuso Riikola
Olli Maatta-Jamie Oleksiak
Marcus Pettersson-Jack Johnson