In the Face of Mounting Odds, Resilient Penguins Keep Winning

First it was Evgeni Malkin being lost through (at least) the end of the regular season. Then came an undisclosed injury to top-pairing defenseman Olli Maatta. Now its Brian Dumoulin dealing with concussion-like symptoms after being driven into the boards Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena.

Yet, despite all the injury-related setbacks, the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to win.

Win impressively I might add.

Last Thursday night, the Pens laid an egg against a desperate New Jersey Devils team. Many in Pittsburgh felt it was the proverbial “trap” game. A game in which the Penguins were clearly the superior team, yet came out flat and essentially had their doors blown off. The Devils all but dominated Pittsburgh from the drop of the puck, scoring less than two minutes into the game. The loss put an end to the Penguins’ six-game winning streak that had been punctuated the weekend before with decisive wins over their two arch-rivals: the Flyers and Capitals.

Chalk it up to a bit of rust. After thrashing the Caps to the tune of 6-2, the Penguins enjoyed three days off. Sometimes downtime can be a real momentum killer.

Pressure-Packed Playoff Implications

Pittsburgh followed up the tilt against the Devils with a pair of weekend matchups against teams either fighting for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs — the Detroit Red Wings — or seeking to solidify its place in the playoffs along with good positioning — the New York Rangers.

The Red Wings find themselves chasing a handful of teams, including the Pens, for one of the two Eastern Conference wild-card positions. The New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers are in the hunt for those two spots as well, and Detroit needs every win they can get.

While Joe Louis Arena holds a very special place in the hearts of those affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins (a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 victory from 2009), it has not been particularly kind to the Pens over the years.

But many in the organization feel that the Penguins’ win over Detroit at “The Joe” back on New Year’s Eve was a defining moment for this team.

The Penguins trailed 2-0 after the first period, then exploded for five goals over the final 40 minutes to pull away and earn the win. It was on this night that most around the Penguins think the team finally found their identity.

Saturday afternoon would start no differently.

Pittsburgh came out a bit slow and allowed the Wings to score first. It was 1-0 heading into the second period when Chris Kunitz would score a wacky goal off the back of Wings’ netminder Petr Mrazek just 20 seconds into the middle frame.

The flood gates had opened and the Penguins never looked back, scoring three more times in the second and added three more in the third for a convincing 7-2 win. The seven goals are the most that the Pens have scored in a single game all season, while they are also the most that Detroit has allowed in a single game all season.

Collision Course

Then came Sunday night’s game at Madison Square Garden.

The Penguins and Rangers are running headlong into one another for a date in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This would be the third year in a row for such a matchup, with the blue shirts winning the previous two meetings.

Entering the game, Pittsburgh trailed the Rangers by four points in the standings with a game in hand. Essentially, this game would go a long way to deciding home-ice advantage in the first round should these two teams inevitably meet.

Back on Feb. 10, the Rangers handed the Penguins a rather demoralizing 3-0 loss at Consol Energy Center. To say that the Rangers, and probably more so Henrik Lundqvist, were in the Pens’ heads would be an understatement. Yet fast-forward to March 3 — once again on Consol Energy Center ice — and the Penguins had seemingly figured out King Henrik and the Original Six New Yorkers.

They even got in the head of Lundqvist who, at one point in the second period, dislodged his own net on purpose over frustration of not receiving a stoppage in play due to injury.

Pittsburgh followed that up with a 5-3 win on MSG ice back on March 13. After that victory, it started becoming apparent that the Penguins had exorcised their Rangers demons.

After trading goals in the first period, and then the second, the third period went scoreless, sending the contest into overtime.

The Pens would start the OT period with a 4-on-3 power play, but failed to convert. Then, with just 30 seconds left in overtime, Kris Letang would fire a shot from just inside the blue line that Sidney Crosby would redirect past Lundqvist for the game winner.

The Pens trail the Rangers now by three points in the standings, but still with that one game more yet to play.

The Infirmary

Evgeni Malkin has missed a total of 18 games with two separate injuries this season. Nick Bonino has missed 19 games (and was feared to miss more after taking a puck off his previously broken hand last friday in practice).

Olli Maatta has now missed a total of eight games; including these past two over the weekend. As for Brian Dumoulin, it remains to be seen just how much time he will miss due to the concussion-like symptoms he’s experiencing.

In all, the Penguins have lost 260 man games to injury for the season.

Yet, despite the odds, the Pens just keep winning.

Pittsburgh is currently 8-1-0 in the previous nine games (the only loss coming last Thursday to the Devils), and 12-4 in their previous 16 (dating back to the end of February).

The Penguins simply can’t replace the production of Malkin, nor the comfort level of Kris Letang being paired up with a new defense partner.

And Dumoulin has easily been the Pens’ most reliable, steady defenseman all season long.

Guys like Eric Fehr and Beau Bennett have all missed significant time injury at some point or another this season. Younger guys have had to step in to replace those role players and try to at least duplicate, if not surpass, their production.

At this point in the season, its all hands on deck for the Penguins, especially in light of these significant absences. The difference between this year and in years past, the bottom-six “role players” are producing at a much higher level. The responsibility doesn’t fall squarely to the shoulders of Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, or Letang any more. Guys like Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin are all pitching in and getting this team the much needed goals for big wins.

Its a breath of fresh air to see all of the secondary scoring that this team has.

The infirmary is getting full, but these Penguins have found a winning antidote.