After being on the losing end of four of their past five contests, the Pittsburgh Penguins were looking for a big rebound Saturday when they hosted the Buffalo Sabres. And they got it – courtesy of Evgeni Malkin, who recalled his 2009 Art Ross Trophy-winning form with a dominant, five-point performance, and a host of players from their minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The 8-3 trouncing of the Sabres came complete with a list of milestones for individual Penguins:
- Marc-Andre Fleury won his 200th career NHL game, becoming the fourth-youngest goaltender to achieve that milestone in the expansion era;
- forward Pascal Dupuis notched his 300th career point, while defenseman Brooks Orpik recorded his 100th; and
- minor-league defensive call-ups Simon Despres and Carl Sneep recorded their first NHL goal and first point, respectively, with Sneep’s assist coming in his first NHL game.
Other call-ups making an impact on the scoresheet included veteran forward Jason Williams, who opened the scoring and added an assist, and defenseman Alexandre Picard, who contributed two assists.
They, along with forward Eric Tangradi (plus-one on the night with a hit and a blocked shot), are filling in for a list of injured Penguins that seems to grow on a nightly basis. Forwards Sidney Crosby, Richard Park and Dustin Jeffrey are on injured reserve, and center Jordan Staal is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. The blueline has been hit the hardest, with Kris Letang, Zbynek Michlaek, Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait all on the shelf with injuries of varying types and lengths, some indefinite. Even the win over the Sabres came with another potential loss, as fourth-line grinder Craig Adams left the contest with a day-to-day, lower-body injury.
But, much like last year – when the team lost 350 man-games due to injury and, at one point, had the top seven scorers from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on its roster – the Penguins know they can rely on a relatively seamless transition when players make the jump from the AHL to the NHL, thanks to having the same system in place at all levels of the organization.
“I can only tell you what it was like for me to play my first NHL game,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “You’re nervous, and you don’t know what’s going on out there. You don’t know what to expect; you don’t know exactly what your linemates are doing. It makes it hard to have any kind of success.
“Carl Sneep’s a guy who’s playing in his first NHL game [and] gets his first NHL point tonight. And he gets it largely because he knows exactly what to do when he’s out there with his partner, delivering the puck to the forwards. I think that’s a big factor for guys coming in and feeling comfortable being able to add, and also add what they do well. You see Jason Williams come up and score his first goal [as a Penguin] tonight, and he knows … what his linemates are doing and how we’re going to execute. I think that helps out a lot with some of those younger players coming up and adding, but also veteran players. They know what they’re supposed to do and they’re real confident doing it.”
That confidence is necessary when the call-ups are immediately expected to play big minutes in all situations – like the 20-year-old Despres, who led the team with 26 shifts against Buffalo, totaling 20:07 of ice time at even strength, on the penalty kill and on the power play, where he got his first goal.
“We take pride in trying to be the 31st NHL team in Wilkes-Barre,” Despres said, adding that having a familiar system “makes it so much easier when you get called up and come play with the big team. They’re doing a very good job down there.”
And, after a milestone night for some of them, the Penguins are looking for their call-ups to continue doing a very good job with the big club for the foreseeable future.
“We haven’t handed that many pucks out after a game ever, since I’ve been here,” Bylsma said. “That celebration and that smile back at the bench says a lot about what playing in the NHL is all about. Just the contributions from our team – we got it from a lot of different areas tonight, both on the scoresheet but also in being able to play the way we need to play.”