Last year, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma won the Jack Adams Trophy largely for what he was able to accomplish in the face of adversity, with an injury-ravaged lineup that seemed to lose another regular nearly every game.
Less than a month into this season, Bylsma’s already getting more practice with a makeshift lineup than he’d like.
The season started with the disappointment – though not unexpected – of captain Sidney Crosby continuing to recover from the concussion symptoms that have sidelined him since early January. Then came news that hard-hitting defenseman Brooks Orpik needed more time to return from off-season abdominal sports hernia surgery, as did forward Dustin Jeffrey from last spring’s knee surgery.
The team’s other superstar center, Evgeni Malkin, got off to a great start before experiencing soreness in the surgically repaired knee that sidelined him for the second half of last season. Malkin came back and pushed through one more game – a night he helped organize with the Washington Capitals to benefit the families of perished KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl – before going back on the shelf.
And the bad news just kept on coming. Forward Tyler Kennedy sat out the team’s trip to Winnipeg and Minnesota this week with concussion-like symptoms, and has since been diagnosed with a concussion. Defenseman Kris Letang left Winnipeg with a two-game suspension for an illegal hit, then the AHL blueliner called up to replace him, Brian Strait, got bit by the injury bug in Minnesota with an undisclosed upper-body ailment.
Rookie Joe Vitale took a stick to the mouth and left the game against the Wild, while defenseman Deryk Engelland took a puck to the left side of the jaw – where he was already cut from two games before – but stayed in. Goaltender Brent Johnson also stayed in after tweaking his knee when teammate Matt Niskanen crashed into the crease.
Incidentally, there had been talk that a three-game winless streak for the Penguins might have had a lot to do with a demanding early-season schedule, packed with eight games in 13 days. And that was before their depleted lineup forced defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin to work nearly 30 minutes against the Wild, with forwards Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis logging more than 21.
Pittsburgh looked flat Monday in handing the new Winnipeg Jets their first victory but, Tuesday against the Wild, with plenty of excuses readily available, the Penguins did what they did so often down the stretch last year – found a way to win.
“You could find some [excuses], I suppose, but that’s not [our team],” Bylsma said. “It’s about the guys in that room and how we can play and playing the right way. And I thought tonight, especially in a tough situation – tough spots, tough games in many nights, back-to-back games – we got a lot of great leadership from our group.”
Among the highlights of the 4-2 victory, winger James Neal netted the game-winner with his sixth goal in eight games, Dupuis contributed a shorthanded tally off a Matt Cooke-created turnover, and the team’s penalty kill remained a perfect 20-for-20 on the road.
“It was a lot of tough minutes for a lot of guys out there,” Bylsma said. “7 [Martin] and 4 [Michalek] in particular played a ton of hockey in tough situations, and our penalty killers, and they did outstanding.”
At this point, finding a way despite mounting adversity is, simply, what the Penguins do.
“Ever since I got here last year, it’s just the way the team runs,” Neal said. “Everyone knows what they’ve got to do, and every guy does a job out there. You go around the room and each guy battles every night.”
It’s that team buy-in to the system that enables Pittsburgh to compete every night, Dupuis said, regardless of who’s missing from the lineup.
“Great goaltending, guys paying the price, blocking shots, playing as a unit,” he said. “The 20 guys who are on the ice are battling for the same goal – win hockey games. And we do it one way, and whoever’s in the lineup plays hard every night.”
The Penguins may play the same way but, without offensive stars like Crosby, Malkin and Letang, they know they’ll have to grind out wins, Michalek said.
“Everybody’s playing their role, and we’re not an offensive team right now by any means,” he said. “We just try to do the dirty work, play good defensively and rely on the goaltending, and right now we’re getting some huge goals.”
There’s no rest on the horizon, as the Penguins host Montreal Thursday and New Jersey Saturday. By the time they wrap up their first month’s schedule on October 29, they’ll have played 13 games in 24 days, a pace of more than a game every other day. But Tuesday’s win went a long way toward making them feel a little less weary.
“It was a huge game for us to bounce back after two or three games that we didn’t think we played well enough, a complete team effort,” Michalek said. “It seems like some bad luck keeps hurting this team, and we keep battling through it. I think we’re doing a really good job.”