Assuming the Pittsburgh Penguins take the ice Sunday afternoon against the San Jose Sharks, it will bring an end to an unexpected, two-week pause in their season. With five games postponed due to COVID-19 issues ranging from opponents on the protocol list to attendance restrictions in some Canadian cities, Jan. 2 is likely to feel like a whole new start to the year in more ways than one.
“These guys are used to playing three-plus times a week, so when you get out of that routine, I think there’s a little bit of an adjustment process,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “For me, the biggest thing is just the mindset and the compete level, because it’s hard to simulate that stuff in practice. Pace of play, intensity of play, and a lot of that starts with the mindset. I think that’s the biggest challenge – making sure from a compete standpoint that we’re ready and willing to get after it from the drop of the puck.”
The Penguins went into the break not necessarily playing their best hockey, but still finding ways to win close games. They staved off a Buffalo comeback at home to win 3-2 in overtime on Dec. 17, then edged out New Jersey, 3-2, on the road Dec. 19 to extend their win streak to seven.
After such a long layoff, getting back into the compete mindset starts with a simple approach.
“Keeping the game simple is an important aspect,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to allow us to get into the hockey game and take a little of the thinking out of it, so that we can play on our toes and use our skating and things of that nature to get involved in the game.”
“You know you’re not going to be at your best,” said defenseman Mike Matheson. “The puck might feel like it’s popping off your stick a little more; your reads might not be there as often as in the regular flow of the season. So you have to treat it like the first game of the season, where you keep things simple and minimize mistakes. Whatever the first option is, you make that option and let the puck do the work instead of looking for the second, third option. Keeping it simple will be the best recipe for us.”
The Penguins encountered COVID-19 problems of their own during the break, with eight players (nine, if you count reserve defenseman P.O Joseph) entering the protocol. By Saturday’s practice, four were cleared – forwards Evan Rodrigues and Dominik Simon and defensemen Matheson and John Marino. Four more remained on the list, and they’re important players for the Penguins – forwards Jeff Carter, Teddy Blueger and Kasperi Kapanen, and none bigger than starting goaltender Tristan Jarry.
“I don’t have an answer [for when he’ll play],” Sullivan said of his netminder, among the NHL’s best this year with a 1.93 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and three shutouts. “He was one [who] has mild symptoms. He’s doing fine, but he does have symptoms, so that’s a little bit different than some of these guys who are asymptomatic. I think that will be a day-to-day thing.”
In the meantime, the Penguins will turn to backup Casey DeSmith, who bounced back from an 0-3-1 start to the season with two strong performances five days apart in December. He backstopped the Penguins to a 6-1 win Dec. 6 in Seattle, then to a 33-save, 1-0 shutout at home against Anaheim on Dec. 11. Louis Domingue, promoted from the taxi squad, will back up DeSmith until Jarry’s return.
“I feel good,” DeSmith said. “Really excited to play; a great opportunity to come off the extended break and pick up where we left off hopefully, and personally also try to pick up where I left off, try to build on a couple good games I had before the break.”
The Penguins should have all three of their defensive pairings intact for Sunday, and their top line is shaping up nicely, too, with captain Sidney Crosby set to get wingers Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust back from injury. With Carter and Blueger on the COVID list, though, and center Brian Boyle unavailable Sunday for personal reasons, the club will be thin at center after Crosby.
To supplement the forward corps, Pittsburgh called up forwards Anthony Angello and Kasper Bjorkqvist, the latter of whom may make his NHL debut on Sunday. Drew O’Connor, meanwhile, recently recalled to the NHL club himself, is getting a big opportunity to fill Blueger’s skates on the third line between Zach Aston-Reese and Brock McGinn.
“Drew’s played really well for us,” Sullivan said. “He brings size, speed, finishing ability, playmaking ability and he’s getting better on the defensive side of the puck. I think he’s getting more comfortable playing center with the reps he’s getting in practice, and some of the opportunities he’s had to play center in games. He picks things up quickly. And I think because of that, he’s established himself as a guy who can play multiple positions, [so] we know he’s an option there.”
The Penguins may be a step behind their opponent Sunday, as the Sharks have already played two games after having three postponed. They won both, including a high-scoring, 8-7 shootout with Arizona last Tuesday.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff in practice over the past week trying to mitigate the break and get ourselves into the best position possible going into the game,” DeSmith said. “I think it’s just important to have a good start [in the] first period. Not be on our heels; be on our toes. Just go after them.”
“If anyone knows [how to deal with this] it’s our team,” Marino said. “With guys being out of the lineup and having new guys in, and dealing with COVID and everything, we’ve done this before and I think that experience is going to help us, too.”