Thursday in Boston, the Pittsburgh Penguins turned in a dud.
A day after Jim Rutherford, the general manager who brought them two Stanley Cups and was actively working to try to help them try to win more, stunningly announced his resignation for personal reasons, the team looked flat and lifeless.
They managed just 17 shots on goalie Jaroslav Halak, with only two of those high-danger scoring chances, despite having three power-play opportunities. Their stars didn’t look especially threatening; their goalie, Tristan Jarry, didn’t look especially sharp in allowing four goals on 20 shots against. And top-pairing defenseman Brian Dumoulin got sidelined with a week-to-week, lower-body injury, adding to their growing list of injured defensemen.
All in all, it was a night to forget. And the next day just brought more noise around the team, with a tweet from former goalie and current analyst Martin Biron starting conversation that captain Sidney Crosby’s future with the Penguins could be in question.
Our Friday insider @DarrenDreger just dropped a bomb on us this morning @TheInstigators saying that a conversation could be happening this summer about Sidney Crosby and his future with the Pittsburgh Penguins!! Wow!!
So the Penguins headed to New York’s Madison Square Garden Saturday for the first of a two-game set with the Rangers, and things didn’t start out much better. Their other top-pairing defenseman, Kris Letang, departed in the first period, making him the sixth blueliner to join that list.
But up stepped 21-year-old P.O Joseph, fresh from their taxi squad – and to the NHL – last week. He played a team-high 25:28 and set up three of the Penguins’ five goals, including Crosby’s that gave Pittsburgh a 5-4 overtime win.
“I thought P.O had a great game,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “He was competing defensively; he has great offensive instincts. We used him on the power play and he made some real nice outlet passes under pressure.
“We believe this kid’s going to get better and better. He’s a real good player, he’s a great kid, he’s got an insatiable appetite for the game and we can see him improving right in front of our eyes with every minute he plays out there. Tonight he played an exorbitant amount of minutes for a young player in this league, and he handled it extremely well. It might’ve been his best game of the season for us, and when we needed it.”
They got a good effort from Cody Ceci – a healthy scratch at times after signing a one-year deal over the offseason, but back in the lineup due to the injury situation – and added a new body to the blueline in Yannick Weber, signed Wednesday and forced to drive from Nashville to Pittsburgh to New York, with a snowstorm in Kentucky along the way, to meet up with the team.
“Cody’s been good for us since we’ve put him back in the lineup,” Sullivan said on Ceci. “I think he’s getting more comfortable with how we’re trying to play; I think he has a better understanding of what role he’s going to play for our team and what the expectations are from the coaching staff. He’s a good pro; he’s played a whole lot of games in this league, he understands what the league’s all about and he plays within himself. We need him at this particular time, and he’s playing some valuable, important minutes for us.”
Their power play was still powerless, going 0-for-4 and allowing its second shorthanded goal in the past three games.
“It’s hard to win when you give those up,” Crosby said. “A lot of times those end up being the difference between winning and losing. It’s a big swing when teams get those goals, and we don’t want to put ourselves in that position.”
But they also had a bright light among their forwards as Kasperi Kapanen, who Rutherford brought back over the offseason after dealing him to Toronto as part of the Phil Kessel blockbuster in 2015, continued to create opportunities with his speed. He’s finding some chemistry with linemate Evgeni Malkin, who sprung Kapanen on a breakaway for his second goal of the season.
“I think it was the second game against the Rangers at home where I started feeling like my speed was getting back and I got that jump in my step,” Kapanen said. “Ever since then I feel like I’ve been playing better hockey. Obviously speed is a big key factor in my game, and Geno and [Jason Zucker] have been playing really well too and giving me the opportunity to use my speed.”
The win over the Rangers lifted the Penguins’ record to 5-3-1, and 5-1-1 since opening the season with two losses in Philadelphia. They’re simply finding ways to win, regularly erasing multi-goal deficits and going 5-0-1 in one-goal games.
It might not be the first thought that comes to mind when you watch the Penguins play this season, but those sound like elements of a gritty hockey club. And Sullivan – who pumped his fist when Crosby scored in overtime, in a rare display of emotion – would agree with that.
“I know how hard they work, and I know they’re competing out there,” the head coach said. “I was happy for those guys. Their resilience and their resolve through all the ebbs and flows of the game, some of the adversities during this early part of the season. I know how much they care; I know how hard they’re competing out there. So, when Sid scored in the overtime, I was certainly thrilled for them.”
They’ve also become a more straightforward hockey club, simply out of necessity, than one that tries to dazzle with offensive talent, and that paid off in the OT.
“We talk to the guys about simplifying the game and helping one another in all three zones,” Sullivan said. “If we manage the puck and we simplify the game, then it gives us the best chance to win. I thought the third period [in New York] was a really strong period for us and we had a lot of possession in overtime, and that led to the overtime goal. We had kept their team on the ice for a long period of time.”
“You’re just trying to keep the game simple and good things happen,” Joseph agreed.
Most specifically, they’re trying to simplify their offensive approach.
“We’re looking to put more pucks at the net and create more opportunity off that puck, whether it be a deflection, a rebound or a next play opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I thought the guys made a concerted effort to shoot the puck more and put pucks more in play that gave us that opportunity for our next play.”
The approach has the team’s buy-in.
“I think we had the right mindset,” Crosby said. “At times we got away from it a little bit, but the intentions and the focus was on being strong on pucks and competing, and the way we played on our toes, creating chances off the rush, in the zone. That’s hard to play against, and that’s when we’re at our best.
“We’ve got to make sure our work ethic sets the tone for everything.”
“We’ve been coming back in games and grinding it out and we showed that again,” Kapanen said. “It’s a good quality to have on this team.”