It was just one game in the dead of a mild January. The Pittsburgh Penguins have won four games in a row and 19 of 29 games since captain Sidney Crosby left the lineup due to injury on Nov. 9. The NHL won’t reset the statistics, nor will there be any official designation, but it sure felt like the Penguins season turned on Tuesday night in the 7-3 win over Minnesota.
Crosby was back. He wasn’t just in back in the lineup. He was back.
The team no longer felt like a beleaguered M.A.S.H. unit or season finale of the Walking Dead. The hockey gods allowed the Penguins to smile without taking something in return.
Over the last two months, the Penguins stacked wins, but on Tuesday night, they added one of the best players in the world. Other injured Penguins such as Nick Bjugstad and Justin Schultz are soon to follow. Sullivan didn’t feel like it was a fresh start to the season, but he did offer a colorful analogy.
“For me, the train is moving. Everybody’s got to jump on when they get back in the lineup. And I think that’s how everybody looks at it,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had some real key people who have been out of the lineup for a while. When they come back, we’re excited to have them back.”
Perhaps other injured players will emulate Sidney Crosby’s four-point debut?
The Pittsburgh Penguins not only survived, but they thrived through a level of adversity, which should have buckled their knees. No team in the league has been hit as hard with injuries as the Penguins. But the club surged to second place in the Metro Division and tied for second in the league with 18 wins since Crosby was injured on Nov. 9.
The Penguins have played just two periods with a full roster this season. After Jake Guentzel’s scary injury, which will likely cost him the regular season and any playoff run, they will not have the full band together this season. But for all of the fight and determination to succeed despite the odds, getting Crosby back felt like a turning point.
For the first time this season, the was a sense of who and what this Penguins team is and what they can be.
“I definitely think it’s a good start. It’s obviously only one game, but getting (Crosby) back and knowing the way we’ve been playing the last couple of months, and having him jump right back in there and be himself, it shows we can be a dangerous team.”
Dangerous. Frighteningly good. Or, maybe…special.
There is something different about this Penguins team, like a boxer who took a beating but smiled through it as he (or she) through knockout punches. The Penguins are remarkably unscathed despite nearly half of their lineup missing significant time this season.
“I give credit to a lot of the players here, through this process they’ve really stepped up and they’ve embraced the opportunity that they’ve been given and are helping this team win games,” Sullivan said. “We also understand and put it in perspective. There’s a lot of hockey left.”
The Penguins completed their 46th game on Tuesday night, which means they have 36 games to go. Next week, they will begin a nine-day break and presumably won’t lose any players to injury during that time.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are again Mike Sullivan’s team, perfectly crafted for their head coach. They are young, fast, tenacious, and most importantly, coachable. In addition to those attributes, add two of the best players in the world (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) a top-shelf defenseman who is an All-Star Captain (Kris Letang), a premier net-front winger (Patric Hornqvist), a pair of goalies who are about to battle for the net, and the Penguins have the kindling for something special.
Whether Tuesday night was a good start or the train is already moving, there’s no doubt where the Penguins tracks can lead. They’ve been through the worst, and now maybe we’ll see the best.