The Pittsburgh Penguins’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night has proven one thing: they are capable of finishing. The month of November has seen some ups and downs for the team that has been plagued by injuries. Of course, the most recent injury to captain Sidney Crosby, out for the next six weeks, is one of the most notable.
In November so far, the Penguins have won three of their seven games. They’ve beaten: the New York Islanders 4-3, the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2, and the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-1. They’ve lost five: the Edmonton Oilers 1-2, the Boston Bruins 4-6, the New York Rangers 2-3, the New Jersey Devils 1-2, and the Islanders 4-5. The numbers are slightly deceptive: despite not always being able to finish, the Penguins have been playing well.
In most of the games, the Penguins have been down significantly for most of the game: down by two after the first against the Bruins, down by three until the third against the Islanders, down by two for the first 30 minutes of the game against the Blackhawks, down by two after the first against the Rangers, down by two against the Devils going into the third. The only game that the Penguins began with the lead was against the Maple Leafs, and that was almost a non-contest with the general lack of defensive play from the Maple Leafs.
Despite the Penguins’ four losses this month, their play has been relatively consistent and good. They might not have scored the first goals, but they’ve been able to rally from behind and tie the game up — even won a few — from behind even if they were down significantly into the third. That’s a passion and determination that the team did not possess at the end of the 2018-19 season, and one that has clearly served them well. Their team-wide drive, bolstered by roster changes, including additions like Brandon Tanev, Sam Lafferty, and Alex Galchenyuk, has allowed them to find a new, speed-driven, North-South game.
Throughout their games, losses included, the Penguins have shown incredible resistance, playing up until the last second and forcing overtimes. Given that they have played 21 games this season, it’s a good sign. It stands to reason that as the stakes rise, so should the level of play — last year’s playoffs notwithstanding. The wrinkle in this assumption is that Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang and Nick Bjugstad are all out of the lineup currently (yikes). With so many key players for the Penguins out, the burden is heavily on Evgeni Malkin’s shoulders. But, like he has in the past when Crosby’s been out of the lineup, Malkin has stepped up.
Malkin in Top Form
Nov. 2 (against the Oilers) marked Malkin’s triumphant return. Since returning from an injury that sidelined him for much of the early season, he’s recorded two goals and eight assists for a total of 10 points. Especially in the game against the Maple Leafs, his confidence was back and his play in top form. He was making smart, clean, and creative passes; shooting; and demanding the puck. He looks nothing like the player he was last season — overconfident, careless, and turning the puck over. Against the Maple Leafs, Malkin scored a goal and earned an assist on Jake Guentzel’s goal.
It’s easy to talk about depth with games like the one against the Maple Leafs; 10 different Penguins scored a goal or assist and a few got a couple points — Dominik Kahun (who had a slow start to the season) scored two goals. However, it’s important to highlight that the team, who started out down six forwards this season due to injury, have only two players who haven’t scored goals yet: Galchenyuk (who has earned six assists) and Juuso Riikola (who’s earned one assist). Jack Johnson has one goal and three assists to his name so far this season. Let that sink in.
Across the roster, the Penguins are scoring goals. The responsibility has been distributed and players like Jared McCann, Kahun, Teddy Blueger, and Bjugstad have all upped their level of play to contribute. Bryan Rust, despite being out early with an injury, has been on a hot streak with seven goals, four assists, and a plus-6.
The resilience from the Penguins is a key trait of this roster, one that they’ll want to continue to foster as they move forward for the next few weeks without Crosby (and Letang, Hornqvist, and Bjugstad). They’ve found their equilibrium, generally outshot their opponents, and even if their play hasn’t always resulted in a win, they’re playing a solid game that promises results in the long-term trajectory of the season, even if they lose a couple close games on the way.
Naomi Shimada is finishing up at Carnegie Mellon University double majoring in Creative Writing and Professional Writing. Though hockey is one of her passions, she also writes about theatre in Pittsburgh.