After the first two weeks of the 2020-21 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins hold a record of 4-2-1. While that sounds decent on the surface, their four wins did not look like great wins. Three of them came in overtime or a shootout and only once has the team let in fewer than three goals. The issues have extended past just the gameplay, however, as the Penguins have already lost multiple important pieces to injury.
Much like last season, the Penguins are already suffering through a long list of injuries that have forced the team to reach into the taxi squad and hope for production from that group, the most recent being defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who did not return to the Tuesday night matchup against the Boston Bruins. He is being evaluated for a lower-body injury.
Through seven games the Penguins have lost defensemen Mike Matheson and Juuso Riikola for “longer-term,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson “week-to-week,” and forward Evan Rodrigues will be missing “longer-term.” These injuries forced defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph and forward Drew O’Connor to make their NHL debuts.
Aside from dipping into the taxi squad, the team as a whole has had a slow start and if the injuries continue, certain names will have to play better hockey. The Penguins had an injury crisis last season, but the team kept winning thanks to their “next man up” mentality and other names being able to perform at higher levels. If the Penguins want to win through the pain, these are players that have to be better.
At the end of the 2019-20 season, and during the offseason, the hype behind Jason Zucker on the Penguins grew to great heights. In the 15 regular season games Zucker played with the team after a trade acquisition, he scored six goals and six assists for 12 points.
Zucker was brought to Pittsburgh to help fill holes left by injury, which he did by scoring at a great pace. Scoring is something he has not yet been able to do too much this season. Through seven games, he only has one goal to his name. That goal will hopefully open the floodgates and be the first of many for the remainder of the season.
Maybe expectations are high for Zucker, but there is no reason why he shouldn’t be reaching them. He has proven to be better in a Penguins’ uniform and he is paired with one of the best players on the team. Although, that player is not off to a great start, either.
This one is a stumper for Pens fans. Evgeni Malkin is undoubtedly one of the greatest players of the last decade and a half, but three points in the first seven games are not up to his standards. Malkin’s poor start was hit with an exclamation point when he and Kris Letang had one too many passes on a 2-on-0 break during overtime against the Bruins.
Malkin used the 2019-20 season to have a bounce-back year, and he was impressive. In 55 games, he scored 25 goals and 49 assists for 74 points. Now he is eyeing down the idea of another bounce back in performance.
Some of the best work in Malkin’s career has taken place when the Penguins have been stunted by injuries. Now is a perfect time for him to return to form and play like the top line center he can be.
In fairness to Letang, most of the team’s defense has looked horrendous through the first seven games and they are the group that has suffered the most injuries. The top line, however, made up of him and Dumoulin have been perfectly healthy and not playing well.
On this team, at the age of 33, Letang is a leader on the defensive core. With over 800 games played and the franchise’s best defenseman ever, this is a player who has his warts exploited by critics. Now is the time for him to help himself out in the critics’ eyes and improve his play and keep the defense from falling into a hole.
As the defensive leader, it’s up to Letang to begin the turn around of the blue line group. If he takes his game to the level it can be, the rest of the core will follow, especially with the possible influx of fresh faces that are going to see NHL ice time.
Injuries will continue to pile up, some longer than others, as that’s just the nature of the sport. It is up to the remainder of the team to fill the void left by the hurt players. Thankfully for the Penguins, some guys have already turned around their play and are looking much better.
A shootout winner and a game-winning goal have helped Jake Guentzel steer his ship in the right direction after a poor road trip to Philadelphia. Everyone knows the scoring threat Guentzel can be. A pair of 20-goal and a 40-goal season already in his young career speaks for itself. Continued goal-scoring is expected and it should continue throughout this season.
More than a goal-scorer, Guentzel has already picked up some helpers with three assists. The top-six of the Penguins lineup did not look great through the first few games, but the consistent play of Captain Crosby and the turnaround of Guentzel proved to be bright spots in a four-game winning streak.
Guentzel’s game can continue to improve with what could become a new constant linemate in the next talking point.
You may not realize it, but Bryan Rust had a five-game point streak after being held off the score sheet in the season’s first game. Three assists and two goals are good, but it’s the opportunities he’s getting that show how much better he’s been.
Rust picked up his first goal of the season in the first matchup against the New York Rangers when he took 11 shots on net. The next game, on a modest three shots, he potted his second in as many matches.
In hopes to jolt the lineup and to look better on the ice, head coach Mike Sullivan did some line shuffling. Said changes saw Rust reach the top line with Guentzel and Crosby, a line that has seen success in the past and it continued. Rust remained on the top unit as they began their two-game set with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 26.
A majority of the injuries may be on the blue line, but with some effort and production from everyone, the Penguins as a whole will continue to win. In a shortened season, finding the win column is more important than anything. They don’t ask how, they ask how many.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.