Eleven days ago against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins all-star center Evgeni Malkin was lost for the better part of two months with an upper-body injury. The hit itself looked completely harmless. Immediate reactions to how it would affect the Pens however, told a different tale.
Despite the win in Columbus that night, the mood around the fan base was somber. The Pens were fighting for their playoff lives at that point and had just begun a nine-game stretch against their Metropolitan Division rivals. They would face that daunting task without one half of their two-headed monster.
Not even Nostradamus himself could’ve seen this coming.
Including that win in Columbus 11 nights ago, the Penguins have rattled off six consecutive victories. None more impressive than Sunday evening’s 6-2 dismantling of the eventual Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
This is Pittsburgh’s second six-game winning streak of the season. The first occurred on former head coach Mike Johnston’s watch from Oct. 24 through Nov. 2.
Until now, under new head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins’ longest winning streak had been four games, sandwiched around the all-star break back in late February.
You never want to lose one of your best players for any extended period of time. Of 72 team games played, Malkin has missed 15, including the past five (and a half, factoring in that he was injured midway through the Columbus game). Even having missed nearly a quarter of the season, Malkin is still second on the team in scoring, behind captain Sidney Crosby. That’s a lot of production for which to try and make up.
Yet these Penguins have been undeterred.
Crosby Carrying the Load
November 2015 seems a distant memory in terms of Crosby’s production.
The Penguins’ captain currently boasts a 12-game point streak; the second 10 game-plus scoring streak he’s had this season (his previous best was 11).
During this current run of production from Crosby, he has 20 points (6G-14A) — good for a 1.67 points-per-game mark.
But its more than just the points production for Crosby. He’s winning faceoffs. He’s backchecking like a mad man. He is doing what Penguins fans have been screaming for for years: leading.
Back in November, there was a popular sentiment that Crosby should be stripped of the “C.” You would have been hard-pressed to find even one hockey fan that would tell you that 87 was the best player in the world.
Now it would be a challenge to find someone who would disagree with that statement.
When Malkin went down with injury back in early February, it was Matt Cullen who stepped in to Malkin’s skates as the second-line centerman. This time around, most assumed the same would happen again.
Instead, Sullivan decided to go with Nick Bonino, himself having missed considerable time with a bad hand.
The Bonino experiment with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has started to pick it up in recent games. But its Cullen’s presence on a third or fourth line with Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust that has been the talk of the town.
Cullen has easily been one of the most reliable players on this team all season long. At age 39 (as Phil Bourque so eloquently referred to Cullen Sunday night on the radio broadcast as “an old fart”), he has played in all 72 games for the Penguins thus far. He’s been a jack-of-all-trades, moving up and down the lineup due to various injuries.
Perhaps its the calming influence on the younger guys however, that might be his biggest asset.
He has fit in perfectly with Kuhnhackl and Rust. While the scoring production isn’t necessarily there as much as some would like (although Rust had a goal against the Caps Sunday night and Kuhnhackl nearly pulled off a Gordie Howe hat trick), its the energy that this line brings when they’re on the ice.
Rust is a speedster that has shown his ability to get behind the opponent’s defense. Kuhnhackl was thought to be more of a defensive-minded forward, suited for a fourth-line checking role. After last night’s goal and two-assist performance — not to mention coming to the aid of his best friend Rust after a vicious hit by Washington’s newly acquired Mike Weber, and getting a game-misconduct for his chivalry — that notion is fleeting; at best.
That was Rust’s goal that opened the scoring. Kuhnhackl had the primary assist, and added another helper on Cullen’s goal early in the third period. But it was Kuhnhackl’s goal that may have been the most impressive of the three tallies this line put up on Sunday evening:
In all, the line of Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Rust put up seven points against the league’s best team on Sunday evening.
For the better part of the past five seasons, the Penguins have struggled mightily with team identity.
Even in the early days of Sullivan’s tenure as head coach (a tenure that started off with four straight losses), this team didn’t know who – or what – it was.
Fast-forward to this most recent winning streak and it becomes clear what the Penguins are all about:
It began with the acquisition of defenseman Trevor Daley from the Chicago Blackhawks. It was then subtly reinforced with the call-ups of guys like Rust, Scott Wilson, and Conor Sheary.
It was cemented by the trade of David Perron and Adam Clendening to Anaheim for speedy winger Carl Hagelin.
Now all of a sudden, everything has clicked.
The Penguins know what their strongest asset is: team speed. Gone are the days of confusion as to exactly who and what this team is. The Pens are no longer trying to out-bully the bullies. No longer are they trying to out-skill the likes of the ‘Hawks or the Caps. The identity is simple, yet effective.
Blow by the opposition with speed.
The loss of Evgeni Malkin is a huge blow. His production cannot be replaced with any one player on this team. With everyone chipping in, however, that loss is softened.
The Penguins have found their swag. Adding a healthy Malkin to the mix will just be icing on the proverbial cake.