Although the Penguins have endured some tough stretches of injuries, illnesses and conditions over the past few seasons, the team has always been careful to avoid using bad luck as an excuse. With top-tier names like Chris Kunitz (fractured foot), Patric Hornqvist (upper body) and Kris Letang (groin pull) joining Pascal Dupuis (blood clot in lung) and Beau Bennett (lower body) on the shelf over the past week, however, few could blame the club if injuries became not an excuse, but a legitimate reason for struggling.
But the Penguins aren’t struggling. With a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators Saturday, the team has won five of seven games over the past two weeks. None have been easy, as Pittsburgh eked out the win by a single goal in all of those contests, but the Penguins have found a way and remain tied atop their division and one point out of first place in their conference.
Pittsburgh is making it through this tough stretch with depth and a team-first mentality, with players willing to do what’s needed for the good of the emblem on the front of their jerseys. Star center Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins’ dominant player for the past several weeks, moved to left wing Saturday in hopes of jump-starting an offense that had been shut out, 3-0, two nights before by Vancouver. Call-ups from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are being pressed into duty, including forwards Jayson Megna, Andrew Ebbett and Scott Wilson – who, typical of the Penguins’ luck of late, was hurt in his first game with the big club – and defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
Pittsburgh also swung a minor trade Friday, with minor-league defenseman Philip Samuelsson, son of Penguins legend and New York Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, heading to Arizona in exchange for 28-year-old depth forward Rob Klinkhammer and a conditional fifth-round draft choice in 2016. Klinkhammer, a big body at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, immediately made his presence felt Saturday with five hits and two penalties drawn against the Senators.
“Keep it simple, bang and crash, try to get on the forecheck hard. Nothing fancy,” Klinkhammer said of his approach, particularly after the whirlwind of arriving in Pittsburgh and playing in an afternoon game without so much as a skate with his new club. “I’ve got a big body; I’ve got to use it. Those are a couple of my strengths – just get in the corners and go to the net hard.”
“Rob’s coming from a good organization, a well-coached team in Arizona, and you could see right away his habits and his details in his game, which is nice to have,” said head coach Mike Johnston. “We went over just two or three things with him – our defensive zone coverage, our forecheck – just so he had a framework, and a little about who he was playing with and how we wanted him to play. Other than that, I just wanted him to play out his instincts.”
Malkin, meanwhile, has played all three forward positions this year with a variety of players and is excelling. His 32 points (14G, 18A) are tied for fourth-best in the league, just three behind the top spot, and 15 of those have come in his last 11 games. Not even Malkin is sure how he’s adapted to the constant change to produce such strong results.
“It’s so tough. It’s a good question; I don’t know,” he said Saturday, after a two-goal effort where he played on the wing with Brandon Sutter and Blake Comeau. “I just try to use my linemates, and last game we did not play good; I did not play good. Just [having] more confidence – I feel fresh, I feel great and try to shoot the puck, control the puck and use my game.”
“I thought tonight he had a lot of jump on the wing,” Johnston said. “I thought he was flying; he had a lot of energy throughout the game. Certainly it’s nice to have a player that you can play on the wing or you can play at center. With our lineup being a little depleted up front, we thought we would use those combinations, and I thought that we had good balance in our lineup.”
Malkin’s dominance has helped compensate for a slight scoring slump for captain Sidney Crosby, whose assist Saturday broke a streak of three games without a point. Crosby still sits just one behind Dallas’ Tyler Seguin’s league-leading pace with 34 points (9G, 25A).
“I think it’s a very important moment for us [with] leadership,” Malkin said. “We know everyone looks to us and we just show [our] best. Tonight, I think we both played good and deserved to win.”
So did the Penguins, who battled back from a 2-1 deficit to have Malkin tie the game with less than two minutes remaining in the second period and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff win it with less than two minutes remaining in the third.
Regardless of the Penguins’ depleted lineup, that’s the kind of character Johnston is looking to see from the players on his roster.
“It’s always important to have a rebound game,” Johnston said. “We talked about that as a group – following [the last] game, I think everybody was anxious to just get back at it, [saying] ‘let’s play another one.’ We didn’t feel the Vancouver game was a good game for us as a team, and I thought tonight was better.”