After an 0-3 start, the Pittsburgh Penguins have won seven of their past eight and are starting to inch up the Eastern Conference standings.
They’ve done that largely on the shoulders of netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, whose six wins are just one behind league leaders Devan Dubnyk and Carey Price, with his goals-against average (1.71), save percentage (.942) and minutes played (595:38) well ahead of both.
“The first couple of games of the season, when I think everybody was trying to get their groove a little bit, I thought that Flower, all of a sudden, he looks big in the net, pucks are sticking to him, he makes the big save when called upon,” said head coach Mike Johnston. “That’s what you need from your goaltender.”
But, as this largely new cast of Penguins starts to find a comfort level both on and off the ice, they’re getting wins in much the way GM Jim Rutherford and Johnston envisioned – by rolling four skilled lines, each with the ability to put offensive pressure on an opponent.
Saturday night in Toronto was billed as star winger Phil Kessel’s return to the city where he spent six seasons, but ended up being a showcase for the Penguins’ newfound bottom-six depth. Pittsburgh got two goals from its fourth line, with Eric Fehr – making his Penguins debut after offseason elbow surgery – cashing in on a hardworking individual effort for a shorthanded goal, and steady offseason acquisition Matt Cullen scoring his first as a Penguin at even strength.
The Penguins also got a power-play goal – they’re inching up the standings in that category, too, from No. 29 to 26 – from their second unit, with Chris Kunitz, who’s flourishing in his new, third-line role, finding a wide-open net courtesy of a play from David Perron.
“It’s a great team effort here tonight, and our fourth line was our best line,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, who scored the last goal in the Penguins’ 4-0 win, his second in as many games. “We have a different line stepping up every night.”
With Pittsburgh struggling to find offense overall this season, with 24 goals in 11 games, that depth has been key to turning a No. 26-ranked offense and a stingy defense, tied for best in the league with only 20 goals against, into a winning formula.
That’s especially important when the top six forwards are receiving the bulk of opponents’ defensive focus.
“A lot of times, when you’re on the road, the checking pressure comes to Geno’s line and Sid’s line for sure, so they’re going to get the other team’s top defense,” Johnston said of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the latter of whom has just one goal and four assists in 11 games. “So I thought the other two lines – [Nick] Bonino’s [third] line; Fehr, Cullen and [Sergei] Plotnikov had a really good night – our penalty kill was solid, Flower was good in the goal when he was called upon. That was really the summary of the game.”
That’s been the summary of the Penguins’ turnaround in general.
“I think it’s important for guys to step up,” Fehr said. “You can’t rely on the same guys every night; it’s a hard league and there’s tight checking every night against those [star players]. We want to try to pick them up as much as we can. We know it’s not going to happen every night but, as long as we’re there for them most nights, it’s going to work out.”
After a start that saw Johnston on the hot seat, it’s becoming clear that the Penguins and their fans should have expected the team to take some time to gel after an offseason of significant change.
“We have quite a few new players in the group,” Johnston said. “Every line was changed; every defense pair was different from the way we ended the season last year. I just think the chemistry of the group is starting to come right now. I see the guys off the ice, and how they interact, and then it’s coming on the ice as guys know their roles, know how they need to contribute. Really, right now, our depth is very good in a lot of areas.”
And, after an offseason that sold lofty offensive expectations with Kessel joining the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang, the Penguins are slowly finding an identity – and success – as a different kind of hockey club.
“[Before the season], everybody was saying how many goals we’re going to score, how good we were going to be, and I think maybe we listened to them a little bit and thought the games were going to be easy,” Fehr said. “The teams in this league, you’re not going to walk over anybody. I think we learned our lesson at the beginning of the year. We’ve played a lot harder, a lot tougher, and we’ve gotten the results because of it.”
“If you’re going to be a good team, you need depth of production,” Johnston said. “You can’t just have a couple lines where somebody’s going to shut them down and they know, on a given night, if we shut down Geno and Sid, we’re going to have a good chance to win. Well, now, we’ve got other depth. We’ve got depth in behind and we’ve got another power-play unit that can also perform well.
“That type of depth is what Jim Rutherford was trying to build with this team, the pieces he’s looked for, and it’s starting to fit together.”