Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Colorado Avalanche – owners of a spotless, 5-0 start to their season – without five of their top nine forwards. With only 11 healthy forwards on Pittsburgh’s roster, in fact, including three who started the season in AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, defenseman Juuso Riikola subbed in as a fourth-line wing.
The Avalanche had the better of the puck possession and scoring chances on the night, but the Penguins made the most of their opportunities – culminating in new addition Brandon Tanev burying his first goal by throwing this shorthanded, unassisted attempt at the net in OT (and getting a little help from Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog):
That impressive win over Colorado was the Penguins’ fourth in a row, and they followed it up Friday with No. 5, a 4-2 win over the slow-starting Dallas Stars, that included this beauty from defenseman Kris Letang:
Jared McCann returned against Dallas, but forwards Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad are still out for varying lengths of time, and the 6-2 Penguins are finding success.
Perhaps more important, they’re starting to find an identity. Much like the roster decisions they’ve made since last season, it’s centered around their definition of being harder to play against. And they’re confident that it can translate to any iteration of their lineup.
“This is the identity we envisioned when we put this group of players together,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s based on a north-south game, it’s a speed game, it’s defending in numbers, it’s puck support in all three zones, and then it’s attention to detail. Regardless of who’s in our lineup, if we play the game this way, we believe we have what it takes to beat anyone.”
“I think we showed that’s the recipe for our team,” Letang said. “I think every guy [who’s] going to come back from injury is going to get in the lineup and play the same way. We’re trying to establish an identity for our team; I think that’s what we’re starting to build on.”
This depleted group is playing for each other, getting results and having fun.
“We’re missing many guys, but the identity, that’s what we’re looking for right here,” said defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who’s showing his offensive upside with four assists in the past three games. “As a group, we’re really taking accountability. Everybody’s stepped up and helped each other out, and I think when we play like that, we can beat any team in the league.”
“I think we’re playing great hockey,” said Patric Hornqvist, who scored the game-winning goal and added two assists against the Stars. “We’re always five guys on the right side of the puck. And we’re playing against good teams, too; it’s hard. They want to transition fast but we’re always in their face. A couple really good backchecks to deny a few big scoring chances. We’re just playing for each other; it’s fun right now.”
Captain Sidney Crosby didn’t register a point against Dallas, but he’s been a key part of the Penguins’ success with at least one point in each of the seven games before that, and 12 on the season so far. His linemates are off to a good start, too, with Jake Guentzel on a career-high, seven-game point streak (5G, 3A) and Dominik Simon on a three-game streak (1G, 2A). Goaltender Matt Murray is quietly at No. 3 in the league with his 5-2 record; his goals-against average of 2.56 and save percentage of .914 are average among starting netminders, but he’s come through with timely saves to keep the Penguins in most games.
And the callups are making the most of their opportunities, none so much as 24-year-old Sam Lafferty of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh. He grew up rooting for Crosby and now shares the ice with him, registering five points in his first four games, playing solid, two-way hockey and looking very much like an NHL player.
The individual players deserve credit, Sullivan said, but this team is winning as exactly that.
“When you look at the amount of injuries that we have and the people [who] are out of our lineup, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys [who] have come in, and they’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given,” Sullivan said. “But the team as a whole is playing together; they’re playing a team game. And I think because of that, they’re having success. It’s a collective effort out there, shift after shift, on both sides of the puck.
“As a result we’ve been able to score some goals, but we’ve also become a much more difficult team to play against. We’re not giving up odd-man rushes in excess. We’re forcing teams to play goal line to goal line; they’ve got to go through numbers of Penguins players to get the puck to scoring areas. We’re really forcing teams to have to work for their scoring opportunities. And to me, that has to be part of the foundation of the identity of this team.”