Sometimes what is on the paper can be wrong.
Matt Hunwick is a more talented defenseman than Chad Ruhwedel. Hunwick is a good skater, can guard the opposing team’s best, and chip in offense. Ruhwedel is a career spare-part defenseman who has learned to manage the game.
This writer has watched Hunwick since he was 18 years old and knows what he can bring to the table. But, for unknown reasons, it hasn’t worked in Pittsburgh. Just as it didn’t work in Colorado when former head coach Patrick Roy employed an aggressive forecheck system, too.
This column tried to assure fans Hunwick would be fine. He’s more talented than the train-wreck moments which have tarred his Penguins existence. And he still is.
However, this column was wrong. I was wrong.
Hunwick isn’t the best option for the Penguins. The team is careening towards the playoffs, which begin in about a month. They have a large puzzle up front to complete. History hangs in the balance. Both sides are out of time.
And Ruhwedel is what the Penguins need right now.
On Saturday, on cue, the Pittsburgh Penguins played a structurally sound, smart hockey game. They dusted off their 2016 strategy like a golden oldie, and shot, shot and shot more against the New York Islanders. The jumped to loose pucks and didn’t panic during tense moments.
“Playing like that is a lot more fun. Guys have more juice in their legs when that stuff happens,” Ruhwedel said Saturday night.
They also simplified their defensive personnel. Hunwick sat. Ruhwedel played for the first time since December.
The defensive gaffes which have plagued the Penguins over the past week vanished. As forwards carried the play, defensemen didn’t take unnecessary chances or lose players in the neutral zone. Against a talented Islanders team, the Penguins took care of the defensive zone.
The defenseman kept the juice in their team’s legs, unlike the last few games.
Ruhwedel simply did his job for a team with more talent than any other team in the NHL. Simply doing the job — or doing the job simply — is good enough.
Ruhwedel Steadies Ship
Ruhwedel is not flashy. He is not big, nor is he physical. The 5-foot-11 defenseman from San Diego was a spare part on awful Buffalo Sabres teams from 2013-2016.
Ruhwedel makes simple plays: Making a quick pass forward, taking away passing lanes. Paired with Olli Maatta against the Islanders, the duo was a vanilla, no-frills defensive pairing.
Precisely what the Penguins needed.
One defensive gaffe or one lousy penalty could have changed the course of the game. The Penguins dominated the puck but were behind for most of the game. A two-goal deficit against the red-hot Islanders goalie, Christopher Gibson, could have been a disaster.
In 31 games played this season, Ruhwedel’s shot-attempt ratio (Corsi For) is nearly 53 percent. Hunwick’s is a paltry 44 percent.
Hunwick’s Year Could Be Done
Hunwick has not worked out with the Penguins, yet. He has played strings of good games. He has been quiet and efficient. And, Hunwick has played strings of terrible games. They have been catastrophic, hide-your-eyes, if-you’re-pregnant-or-have-a-heart-condition-do-not-ride-this-ride games.
Hunwick’s short-lived pairing with Jamie Oleksiak was painful. Both defenders lost their coverages, both activated at bad times, and both had high minuses hung on them. The pairing needed to vanish.
Hunwick is an 11-year NHL veteran who played some of his best hockey in last year’s playoffs for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Washington Capitals.
But will Hunwick vanish to the press box, long-term? Yes. He may get used to press box nachos if the Penguins keep winning and Ruhwedel keeps the play simple.
Hunwick will probably get one more shot. Talent and a long track record will usually earn another shot. But just one more shot.
The fans lined up on the Fort Pitt Bridge, fearful of the Penguins demise, can breathe easier. After an ugly three-game losing streak which included losses to playoff teams in New Jersey and Boston, apprehension became outright fear.
And it all disappeared with a 50-shot win over the New York Islanders. And no defensive gaffes.
That’s all the Penguins need.