The Penguins have been without captain Sidney Crosby, still arguably the game’s best player, since Nov. 9.
Brian Dumoulin, their best defensive defenseman, has been lost since Nov. 30. A week before Christmas, they added Justin Schultz, one of their top offensive blueliners, to the injury list.
There’s also the matter of Matt Murray, their franchise goalie, being mired in a struggle that’s seen him win just twice since Nov. 9.
In a season that’s been defined by their resilience, though, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Penguins have found a way to rise above every challenge that’s come their way.
Saturday night, after recovering from a blown three-goal lead to edge the Nashville Predators, 6-4, Pittsburgh was sitting pretty in second place in the highly competitive Metro Division, with 50 points to the Washington Capitals’ 59 (and two games in hand). Their record was also good for fourth place in the league overall.
The Penguins were also second in the league in goal differential, with their +29 second only to Boston’s +33. They’re eighth in goals for, while allowing the fourth lowest goals against.
Since Crosby left to deal with a core muscle injury that required surgery, the Penguins have gone 13-5-3. They’re 9-2-0 since Dumoulin suffered lacerated tendons in his ankle and required immediate surgery, too.
How? For one, they couldn’t ask more out of their current top line, centered by another superstar in Evgeni Malkin. He’s playing with Crosby’s winger Jake Guentzel, who’s on pace for another 40-goal season, and Bryan Rust, who’s made big strides this season from a one-time streaky scorer to a consistent producer. Since Crosby’s been out, Malkin has 29 points in 19 games played, Guentzel 26 in 21 games, and Rust 23 in 18 games.
The depth GM Jim Rutherford worked to add last summer is also paying off. In a 5-2 win at Nashville Friday, 14 different Penguins put up a point or more. Forward Dominik Kahun, who struggled in his first month or so with the Penguins, has settled in nicely and found chemistry on a line with center Jared McCann and winger Alex Galchenyuk – who, speaking of finding one’s game, scored twice in the Penguins’ two post-Christmas contests, matching his goal output in the entire season to date.
“Alex works so hard,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s really a great person. He cares so much and, when he was going through a bit of a struggle early on, it wasn’t from a lack of effort, care or want. We tried to encourage him to stay with it. We had [Mark Recchi] spend a lot of one-on-one time with him with video to help clarify what our expectations are, the details of our team game and adjusting to that.
“He just keeps working at it; I give Alex credit. We all believe he’s a better player than he’s shown to this point, and we’re just trying to help him get there. The fact he’s scored a couple of goals in the last couple games I think will be a big boost of confidence for him.”
Twenty-two-year-old defenseman John Marino, fresh out of college, has been a revelation and helped lessen the impact of the losses on the blueline. But perhaps no player has been more important to the Penguins during this stretch than 24-year-old Tristan Jarry, their second-round draft pick in 2013 who was once the goalie of the future – until Murray emerged first.
Now, Jarry leads the NHL in every goaltending category with his 1.87 goals-against average, .939 save percentage and three shutouts on the season. Jarry has largely picked up those stats through November and December as Murray struggled to a 3.58 GAA and .870 Sv%, and the Penguins have gone with the hot hand while Murray takes a step back to work on his game.
Saturday, the Penguins’ coaching staff stuck with Murray as the team was badly outshot, outpossessed and outchanced over the last two periods. That gave him the chance to shake off a soft goal or two with key saves that kept Pittsburgh in the game, until a late power-play gave them the chance to retake the lead.
“He was outstanding tonight,” Guentzel said. “He won us the game [for] a lot of reasons; he made some big saves and we didn’t really help him out too much. Just a huge win for him.”
“I don’t think that’s the game plan we drew up necessarily, but we grinded it out,” Murray said. “Credit to [Nashville]; they brought it. I thought we outplayed them in the first, then after that they pushed back real hard.”
The Penguins have been doing that consistently, too.
“We’ve been in pretty much every situation you can think of this year, coming back from leads, [losing] leads that were ours, and I think we just try to stay even-keeled,” Rust said. “Try and get the momentum back and, when we get the opportunity, we capitalize.”
“I give our players a lot of credit. We win the game; it wasn’t the prettiest win, but I liked our resilience and our resolve,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t crumble; we kept competing, as much as it was hard for us to try to get momentum back.
“My hope is that we can take a lot out of this game. It’s a great opportunity for us to take lessons out of this without getting stung in the win/loss column. We’ve got to make sure we hold one other more accountable to continue to play and stay focused on the details of our game.”