The Penguins are still missing Sidney Crosby (wrist surgery, now day-to-day) and Evgeni Malkin (knee surgery, at least two months). For the season opener in Tampa Bay, forwards Jake Guentzel and Zach Aston-Reese remained on the COVID-19 protocol list, while defenseman Mike Matheson was out with a lower-body injury. They got Guentzel back for game two in Florida and Aston-Reese for the home opener at PPG Paints Arena against the Chicago Blackhawks, but added forward Bryan Rust to the injury list.
Three games into the regular season, the Penguins are in familiar territory, talking about compete level, resilience and needing contributions from up and down the lineup. And like they have so many times before, they’re getting them, collecting five of six possible points and scoring 15 goals in the first three games.
The contributors change, but the story stays remarkably consistent. Perhaps that has something to do with the steadying presence behind the bench, and head coach Mike Sullivan’s belief in his club.
“He’s got that next-man-up mentality,” said defenseman John Marino. “We’ve had a lot of injuries the past couple of years, and a lot of guys have stepped up that you probably wouldn’t expect. We’re still putting up offensive production. He instills that in us and instills that confidence.”
“I just give our guys credit,” said Sullivan, who, with Saturday’s 5-2 win over Chicago, became the winningest coach (253) in Penguins history. “They’re playing hard, they’re playing collectively as a group, they’re trusting one another and they’re executing. When we play the game a certain way, we’re going to give ourselves a chance.
“We still have a fair amount of skill in our lineup that’s very capable of scoring goals, and we think we have some guys in our bottom six that have more upside and the capability of expanding their game. When we play the game with a certain level of commitment, and we rely on our structure and our team concept, I think we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the players in the bottom six are feeling some healthy competition for those spots as the team’s injury situation evolves.
Drew O’Connor, one of the best stories of training camp as his hard work during the offseason translated to a roster spot, found himself scratched for Thursday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers. Back in the lineup Saturday, he notched his first NHL goal and second assist, the goal coming when former Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury got caught out of position behind the net.
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“I think it’s just taking it one shift at a time,” O’Connor said. “As a guy on the bubble, you kind of have to earn every shift. I think for me, just going out there and playing smart and making simple plays and earning that next shift is my mentality.”
Several of those bubble players have been a big part of the Penguins’ somewhat improbable record so far, which included a 6-2 opening night win over the back-to-back champion Lightning. Evan Rodrigues has seen time on the first power play unit and has three points (2G, 1A) in three games. Dominik Simon (1G, 2A) also has three points. Even 36-year-old Brian Boyle, signed on the eve of the opener after a year out of the league, got in on the offense with a goal against Tampa.
“I think we have a little bit more confidence in ourselves,” said forward Jason Zucker. “We’re a good team. We’ve got great players up and down the lineup from fourth line to first line, and we feel we can produce. Our D are playing great, keeping pucks alive, getting pucks up in the rush and giving our forwards a chance to make plays. Overall, it’s just collective effort. We’ve had a lot of guys scoring goals, from Boyle and O’Connor on the fourth line all the way to Guentzel and Rusty.”
Offseason addition Danton Heinen is looking like a high-value pickup for the Penguins with his one-year, $1.1 million contract, as he’s scored in all three games and is looking more like the player he was earlier in his career with the Boston Bruins than the one he was with the Anaheim Ducks. Jeff Carter, also 36, has looked ageless in picking up top-center duties with Crosby and Malkin out and notching four points (1G, 3A). Defenseman Kris Letang, 34, has been quietly consistent, too, co-leading the team in points (4A) with Carter.
Goalie Tristan Jarry, who’s started two of three games, has also looked solid following his disappointing playoff series against the New York Islanders. He allowed just two goals against each of Tampa and Chicago, stopping 44 of 48 shots for a .917 save percentage.
“He’s working hard in practice; that’s where you develop the details of your game,” Sullivan said. “And I believe he’s feeling confident right now. Tristan’s played long stretches of hockey where he’s been really good for us; no one should lose sight of that fact. He’s a real good young goalie. I think he’s maturing as a goalie, I think he’s developing more resilience and I think his practice habits are continuing to improve. He’s been very good so far this season, and we’re hopeful he can bring a more consistent game for us.”
It’s just a three-game sample size, but the Penguins have been consistent – and impressive – this season so far.
“I think in years past, too, when those [star players] go down, everyone kind of relishes the opportunity and steps up their game,” Rodrigues said. “When you’re getting more ice time, you get more puck touches, you feel more confident with the puck and you do things that maybe you wouldn’t if you weren’t getting as many minutes. Really happy with the way our team’s played [so far]; just got to continue to build on it.”