February has been a difficult month for the injury-plagued Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite the valiant efforts of remaining players and numerous AHL call-ups, the team was 5-5-2 heading into Carolina Friday night.
The loss to the Hurricanes that night was a heartbreaking 4-1, with the Pens’ only goal coming from forward Pascal Dupuis. The team–including new additions Alex Kovalev, James Neal, and defenseman Matt Niskanen–were mounting pressure in the offensive zone and at times controlling momentum, but they could not get the puck into the net.
“Obviously, we have to find ways to score goals and create even more opportunities than we did,” said Pens forward Jordan Staal after the game.
Playmaking was not the problem; the real issue has been the painful absence of top scorers. Third-line winger Tyler Kennedy has four points in his last five games, but he is now injured.
Adjustments needed to be made — primarily, incorporating the new trades and following through on scoring chances. The defense also needed to solidify following the recent loss of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin to (you guessed it) injury.
The following evening, the Penguins were in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs, who have become a challenging team to play against. Pens Head Coach Dan Bylsma expressed the importance of hard work and determination to earn wins.
“Work ethic and battle level have been a calling card for our team and something we’ve done all year long regardless of lineup,” Bylsma said before the Leafs game, “and we’re going to continue to step on the ice and be that way.”
His words could not have rung truer, as the Pens’ 6-5 shootout win was a testament to their resolve.
Tension was high until the very last minute. Neither team had the lead for very long; a goal from one was quickly answered by a goal from the other. The Penguins, however, rose above what could have easily been another crushing defeat by working as a team to their fullest potential.
Five different Penguins forwards scored in regulation: Kovalev, Mark Letestu (fresh from the injured list), Dustin Jeffrey (in his second post-injury appearance), Maxime Talbot (shorthanded) and Mike Rupp.
“We got (goals) from different people – a couple guys have been inserted in the lineup, guys coming back from injuries,” Bylsma told Sam Kasan of the official Penguins website. “Jeffrey got a goal. Mark Letestu was good offensively tonight…We got a goal from (Kovalev) to get us started in the game.”
Rather than allowing the loss of high-scoring players to be felt, the Pens compensated by contributing across the roster. When every line plays at its highest level, a win can be built piece by piece.
The new additions were visibly more assimilated in Toronto. Kovalev was a key force, also scoring the game-winning shootout goal.
“For us he was the player of the game” Talbot told Kasan. “He’s happy to be here and we’re happy to have him. He made an impact, and I’m sure he’ll make an impact in the next couple of games.”
Neal and Niskanen are also adjusting well and becoming more visible on the ice.
Defenseman Kris Letang logged an assist, but his presence cannot be fully reflected on the score sheet. He is shining in all aspects of the game, thwarting opponents on defense and being a powerful playmaker offensively, including on the power play. He especially excels at keeping the puck in the attacking zone to maximize chances. In two of the past three games, he was on the ice for over 30 minutes.
“He’s at the top of the league in defensive scoring for a reason,” fellow blue-liner Zbynek Michalek told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The Penguins are becoming what they needed to be to overcome the injury crisis. Instead of struggling to stay afloat without their difference-makers, they are becoming a team of difference-makers. When everyone plays at his best and contributes, success is possible.
At this rate, the Pens may not need Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin back at all. Just kidding, but if those two superstars were able to play…imagine the possibilities.