For the fourth time in a little more than two weeks, the Penguins turned in an inspiring performance over a division rival when they dominated the New York Islanders, 4-0, Friday in Brooklyn.
Could this one be a real turning point in Pittsburgh’s underwhelming season? Or will they, as they have after beating the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2 and 5-4, then the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-1, come crashing back to earth with a clunker?
Sunday’s nationally televised game against the Boston Bruins is a chance to find out.
“We had a solid game with the Islanders and we want to make sure we build off of that,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “That’s something we haven’t done a great job of, so we’ll look to do it here.”
For Crosby as well as the Penguins, Friday’s contest provided something to build on. His line with recent call-ups Dominik Simon, 23, and the dynamic Daniel Sprong, 20, delivered three goals, all of them at even strength, where Pittsburgh is dead last of the league’s 31 teams with 59 five-on-five goals in 43 games played.
The captain had his most dominant performance of the season Friday. Maybe that had something to do with playing the Islanders, whom Crosby has tormented more than any team with 107 points (33G, 74A) in 60 career games.
But watching Crosby work with Sprong specifically – going over plays with the team’s top prospect via iPad on the bench, setting him up with a pinpoint pass for the opening goal on the ice – was also reminiscent of the lift he’s gotten when paired with other young wingers, like Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary, in the past.
Just call them Sid and the New Kids. And you’ll be seeing more of them Sunday against Boston.
“When a guy comes in with that urgency, you can’t replace that. That’s something that’s going to be there right away,” Crosby said. “I’m not getting any faster, either, so I think it helps to have young speed, young legs. Youth and excitement and energy is a positive thing for teams. The young guys coming in bring that, and healthy competition in the lineup, and I think that’s great for everybody.”
“When you look at the success this team has had the past couple of seasons, it’s been the combination of veteran leadership presence with some young, hungry, enthusiastic, energetic guys surrounding them,” said head coach Mike Sullivan.
“I think the young kids push the veteran guys, they inspire the veteran guys, and vice versa. The veteran guys we have, our young players admire and look up to for everything they’ve accomplished in the game, as they should. I think it’s that combination that makes our team what it’s been, so we’re looking for that combination right now so that we can get more consistent results. And we’ve got a lot of young guys in our lineup right now [who] are getting great opportunities.”
Sprong, who’s been biding his time in the AHL waiting for this opportunity, is more than happy for the chance to be mentored by players he’s grown up watching.
“Just watching those guys, how they do things on the ice or off the ice,” Sprong said. “And when you play with them, they know what it’s like to be a young guy. They’ve been in your shoes, so they help you calm down. It makes the game much easier.”
So does having a stronger all-around game. Sprong’s oft-maligned work on the defensive side of the puck has been just fine since he joined the team on New Year’s Eve, and that’s the product of hard work.
“I’m happy with the way it’s going, but you want to get better every day,” Sprong said. “They really did a good job with me [in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton]. They showed me when I was doing the right things and what led to that, and when I was doing the wrong thing. They showed me a lot of video and worked with me on the ice. I think that gained for me a lot of confidence, and I think that really helped me a lot [in] maturing as a player.”
The Penguins are also embracing youth in goal. Matt Murray, a grizzled veteran of two Stanley Cup championships at age 23, has struggled this season, and backup Tristan Jarry, all of a year younger, has emerged as the hot hand. Jarry earned the shutout against the Islanders, his second in 14 games played this season, and will get the start Sunday versus Boston.
“At this point of the season, I think it’s important to make sure we’re focused on trying to win the game right in front of us,” Sullivan said. “The question I always ask our coaching staff is, ‘Which players, on any given night, are going to give us the best chance to win?’ The goaltending position’s no different. Right now, Tristan’s playing extremely well, and we think he’s deserving of the start.”
The head coach was quick to add that the organization hasn’t lost faith in Murray.
“We believe in both of these guys,” Sullivan said. “Matt Murray’s an accomplished guy for a young goaltender, and we know he’s a good goalie. He’s had his struggles as of late but it doesn’t change the faith that we have in him. We know he’s going to pull his game together and be an important part of our team moving forward.”
One area where youth apparently won’t be served on Sunday? The blueline, where the expected return of Brian Dumoulin looks like it will bump recent acquisition Jamie Oleksiak, 25, from the lineup in favor of Matt Hunwick, 32.
“I think Jamie has to continue to play the way the game the way he’s played since he’s been here,” Sullivan said. “We think he’s brought a lot to our defensive corps. He’s a big, strong guy; he’s got good mobility.
“When he keeps the game simple, takes what the game gives him and doesn’t force things, I think that’s when Jamie’s at his best. All of our defensemen, for that matter. We have those discussions daily with our defense corps. We’re looking for smart, efficient, calculated decisions back there [so] we don’t turn the puck over as much.”
It’s those kinds of little details – not giving their opponent time and space, finishing hits and generally being tougher to play against – the Penguins will hope to bring Sunday against the Bruins. It’s the first of a three-game homestand that also includes back-to-backs next weekend after a bye week.
PPG Paints Arena has been a decidedly less intimidating place for opponents this year, with the Penguins winning just 12 of the 20 they’ve played on home ice. With Pittsburgh on the outside looking in at the playoffs – not to mention five days coming up where they can’t earn any points – it’s important to capitalize on the home schedule.
“We’ve really got to take advantage of being at home,” Crosby said. “With the importance of the games and the points that are on the line, hopefully that’s something we can improve on.”