For a team battling for a playoff spot, not to mention the hope of making a run at the Stanley Cup once they get there, Saturday’s news couldn’t have been much worse.
Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin, who appeared to injure his left hand when big defenseman Dalton Prout crunched him into the boards Friday night in Columbus, had returned to Pittsburgh for evaluation. A few hours later, word came that – unless the Penguins make it deep into the playoffs without him – Malkin’s season was over.
The six-to-eight-week injury to one of the league’s most dynamic players is no small blow to the Penguins. But their next game, Sunday against the New York Rangers, provided the chance to make a statement for those who expected Pittsburgh to roll over and surrender its postseason aspirations.
The Penguins went into Madison Square Garden and, after sleepwalking through the first period of an early-afternoon start, found a way to get four goals past netminder Henrik Lundqvist, added an empty-netter for good measure, and held the Rangers to eight combined shots in the final two frames to come away with a 5-3 win.
“It was such an important game for us to respond to losing one of our most important players,” said forward Matt Cullen. “And, really, we are kind of a battle-tested team. We have gone through a lot this year, and we’ve continued to find a way to get things done.”
Getting things done to the tune of two goals Sunday was speedy, 23-year-old forward Conor Sheary, recalled Saturday from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for another stint with the big club. Another recall, 21-year-old AHL rookie Dominik Simon, notched an assist in his NHL debut.
“Obviously, it’s unfortunate for the team as a whole losing a player like [Malkin],” said Sheary, but “a good opportunity for a lot of guys to get some secondary scoring and to get some more minutes when a top guy like that goes down.”
“He’s a terrific kid,” head coach Mike Sullivan said of Sheary. “He goes about his business, he works hard, he comes to the rink, he does as he’s told, and it’s just great to see a kid like that get rewarded. He’s a good hockey player. You can see his offensive instincts, you can see his vision when he has the puck, and his effort is inspiring – not just to the coaching staff, but to his teammates as well.”
Sheary took home No. 1 star honors Sunday. Teammate Matt Cullen, serving as an alternate captain in Malkin’s absence and stepping up not only with veteran leadership but the game-winning goal midway through the third period, earned No. 3.
Another recent call-up, forward Tom Kuhnhackl, worked a set play with Sheary that led to the latter’s second, breakaway goal, one of two assists for Kuhnhackl on the afternoon. Captain Sidney Crosby fired eight shots on goal and attempted five more. Newly acquired defenseman Justin Schultz got the chance to use his ability to shoot from up high to quarterback the first power-play unit.
“I think that’s one of his strengths,” Sullivan said. “What he brings on the offensive side coming off the blue line, joining the rush, on the power play – all those aspects of his game are his strengths, and that was why we thought he could help us.
“He had a great shot on one of Conor’s goals; that redirect. I had a great view of it from the bench. There wasn’t much room there to get that puck through, and he got it through. He’s going to bring that to our team and, the more he gets comfortable with our group and how we’re trying to play, his game’s only going to get better and grow.”
Forward Patric Hornqvist also stepped up, netting a typically pesky goal to open the scoring – not from his usual spot in front of the net but behind it, where he saw an opportunity and banked in a shot off Lundqvist’s back. And, not to be forgotten, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who kept the Penguins in the game by allowing just one goal during a 19-shot, first-period onslaught.
“We certainly didn’t have the start we wanted to; that’s for sure,” Sullivan said. “I thought Marc had some huge saves early in the game that gave us the chance to get our legs under us. He gave us a chance to win today.”
It was a complete team effort, and it’s the kind the suddenly Malkin-less Penguins will need plenty of during the final 14 games of the regular season.
Sunday’s win lifted Pittsburgh over Detroit for the top wildcard spot, but the Penguins are also just two points behind the New York Islanders, whom they happen to host Tuesday, for third place in the Metro. And, for that matter, just four ahead of the Flyers, whom NBC analyst Mike Milbury predicted Sunday would take advantage of the Penguins’ injury woes to grab their playoff spot.
“We find ourselves in a good position now, but we know how important these next games are,” Cullen said. “We’re by no means out of the woods yet, so we’ve got to just continue to do what we’re doing.
“I think the biggest key is that we’ve taken the approach that we want to continue to improve all season long, and I think we have. I think, as a team, we’re continuing to grow and we’re dealing with adversity.”