The question itself posed by PHN stumped a couple of people who should know the answer if there truly is one. Over the course of the past three seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been at their best during their worst times. Not everything on this planet makes perfect linear sense and it was obvious some key Penguins personnel had not ever thought about the obvious.
The Penguins win games without their best players. They have won four in a row including dishing the first loss of the season to Anaheim last Thursday and Colorado Wednesday night.
It doesn’t make sense in a Mr. Spock, logically-speaking sort of way. Better players should make a team better. Lesser players should render a team feckless. But the sample size is now too large to ignore. The Pittsburgh Penguins win games without their best players.
PHN asked and at first, Sullivan was stumped.
“I’m not sure,” Sullivan initially offered. “I think when guys go down and you have the number of injuries that we have, I think it just creates a level of urgency among our group.”
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has been on both sides of the issue. His Norris Trophy-caliber 2016-17 season was cut short with a serious neck injury that required surgery. The Penguins patchwork defense was just good enough for the Penguins to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. And Letang was again absent last March in addition to Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins had their best month of the season.
Letang is currently helping Sidney Crosby carry the Penguins through one of the most injury-filled stretches the Penguins have ever seen. But he too seemed a little bit stumped by the question.
“Yeah, I think…I don’t know. We have a lot of depth and the young guys are hungry,” Letang said. “They want to be in the NHL and they just bring their A-game. Now, we rely on them a lot. They play big minutes.”
It is true, the Pittsburgh Penguins are experiencing a situation similar to 2015-16 when players from the AHL seized opportunities. Those players became lineup regulars Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl. But the injury situation is now much worse and might be the worst I’ve ever seen. The Penguins are missing five of their top nine forwards. Somewhere around 95 goals and 240 points are missing from the lineup.
Most teams would be in a fetal position. Yet the Penguins somehow thrive in adverse conditions.
“These guys have responded. They never look for excuses. There’s an expectation that we can win games regardless of who’s in our lineup,” Sullivan said. “I think our veteran guys have really stepped up. I think Sid has been spectacular. Dumo [sic] and Tanger [sic] have been terrific. Jake (Guentzel) has been really, really good. Horny [sic] has been really, really good and impactful in the games.”
At this point, Sullivan’s train of thought seemed to find the tracks. And he began to zero in on the very thing which happened in 2016, too. It seems like a lifetime ago, but the reverberations of that season are still being felt in the Penguins organization as Bryan Rust established himself as an NHL regular and Conor Sheary was the asset which allowed the Penguins to escape from the flop of Matt Hunwick’s contract in the summer of 2018.
“I think a lot of our veteran guys have stepped up as well and provided the necessary leadership, and then everyone else falls in line,” Sullivan conveyed with a certain enthusiasm. “I think in some ways, the young kids are helping our veteran guys by bringing the energy and juice, and our veteran guys are providing the leadership for those guys and how to play the game the right way.”
If you don’t recall, that became a primary theme in 2016. The new players brought energy and enthusiasm to a previously stale and tired group; like topping off a cold cup of burnt coffee with the really good stuff. The blend of old and new created an environment in which all sides took the best from each other. Veterans used the energy and desperation and the new players were placed into a structured system with specific roles and expectations.
One of the Penguins’ current crop of recalls which has become more than just a flotation device is Sam Lafferty, who was thrust into the second-line center role Wednesday night. Lafferty had three goals last weekend and has five points (3g, 2a) in his first five games.
Sullivan also praised Lafferty and the coach rattled off a laundry list of things he likes about Lafferty.
“I think he’s gaining confidence with every game he plays, as he should. I think he knows now that not only can he play in this league, but he belongs,” Sullivan commended.
Depth, a bit of luck and a lot of urgency have propelled the Pittsburgh Penguins again. And the result of the worst injury epidemic to ever hit the team might be the discovery of another player or two who impact the organization. And that’s why the Penguins are at their best during the worst times.