Already missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust (lower body, week-to-week), the 2-0-2 Penguins headed into Saturday night’s matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs down a couple more players. Veteran Jeff Carter, who’s been centering the first line in Crosby and Malkin’s absence, tested positive for COVID-19, and top-pair defenseman Kris Letang was on the COVID protocol list, too.
So, naturally, the Penguins and their makeshift lineup did what they do in these situations – faced down the challenge and not only beat the Leafs, but steamrolled them, 7-1.
“I think we’ve always had a mindset here that there’s an expectation to win, and that has just been the standard of the Pittsburgh Penguins,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I think the players deserve so much credit, because they’re the guys who set the bar, they set the standard, and no one looks for excuses. I think everyone rallies around it and tries to make a difference. Different players step up at different times.”
Eleven different players picked up a point for the Penguins Saturday, led by rookie forward Drew O’Connor with a career-first two-goal game and resurgent defenseman Marcus Pettersson with a career-high three-point (1G, 2A) effort.
“I think I got a couple good bounces, too,” Pettersson said. “When you play as a team, you work for each other and you’re going to make each other look good. I truly believe that.”
That team mentality has been evident this year as 14 different Penguins have found the net; only two teams in NHL history have had more unique goal scorers through the first five games.
They’ve also scored four or more goals in all but one game this year and are co-leading the league in goals-for with 23 through five games, despite missing those top stars. The team has talked a lot about “collective effort” this season, and their performance so far is backing it up. On Saturday, for example:
Zach Aston-Reese sacrificed his body for the cause, becoming just the sixth player in Penguins history to record 10 hits in a game;
Teddy Blueger, center on the third line with Aston-Reese and Brock McGinn that’s often been the Penguins most effective, won a career-high 17 faceoffs;
Danton Heinen notched two assists, giving him five points in five games;
Jason Zucker scored his second goal of the season, showing potential for rediscovering the scoring touch that’s been a bit of a letdown since joining the Penguins two years ago; and
Tristan Jarry continued to show a confidence in his game that could have easily gone the other way after a disappointing playoff performance, stopping 28 of 29 Leafs shots and improving his stats to a .943 SV% and 1.47 GAA. “I think his body language right now exudes confidence,” Sullivan said of his starting netminder.
There was plenty of credit to go around on a night like this one, like for forward Evan Rodrigues, who stepped up to fill the first-line center role and, with a goal and primary assist, didn’t look at all out of place doing it.
“He’s a very valuable player for us, and his versatility is one of his greatest strengths,” Sullivan said. “The thing that I love about him is, when we play him in the top six, he has a quiet confidence about him. When you play up the lineup like that, there’s pressure to perform and there’s pressure to produce. And E-Rod is not afraid of that. It’s just the opposite; he gets excited about it. Our coaching staff has grown to really appreciate the subtleties of his game.”
“When your coach trusts you and believes in you, it gives you that extra confidence,” Rodrigues said. “Since I’ve been traded here and had the chance to play and get regular minutes, I think I’ve gotten back to the game that made me successful and got me to be an NHL player. Just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get and go out and win some hockey games.”
Five games into the 2021-22 season, the undermanned Penguins have yet to lose one in regulation, even if the excuses are right there for the taking.
“For me that’s what brings teams together, that’s what galvanizes groups,” Sullivan said. “And [in] my experience of coaching this group of players, sometimes we’ve grown so much as a team through the injury adversity. Maybe that’s the silver lining in it all. But I think it always goes back to the people and the character in your room, and I think we have high-character people.”