Penguins’ Consistent Depth Is Key

It was a great weekend for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They came home with two solid wins, scoring seven goals in both games, and continuing a three-game win streak. But what the road trip really proved was that the wins against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks were not flukes.

I don’t need to go in depth into the injuries the Penguins are facing, but a quick reminder: Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are out. At first, everyone bemoaned the loss of the veterans, especially Malkin who was expected to have a fiery start to the season, but the new guys have proven that they can step up.

14 Goals in 2 Games

Let’s break down the scoring from the weekend. The Penguins faced the Minnesota Wild on Saturday and the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday in their first road trip of the season for a total of 14 goals for the Penguins.

Starting with the game in Minnesota, the scoring looked like this: Patric Hornqvist, Sidney Crosby, Adam Johnson, Kris Letang, Joseph Blandisi, Jake Guentzel, and Sam Lafferty. Take a second and let that list sink in. There is one veteran defenseman (Letang), three well-known veteran forwards (Hornqvist, Crosby, and Guentzel), one first-goal-as-a-Penguin (Blandisi), and two first career goals (Johnson and Lafferty). It’s a lot.

Now for the game in Winnipeg: Zach Aston-Reese (twice), Guentzel (twice), Lafferty (twice), and Dominik Simon.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sam Lafferty
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sam Lafferty (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

The concern that the Penguins, down multiple important players, would falter and play abysmally, is gone. The team has managed to dig deep and recall players from their AHL affiliate team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who fit the kind of play that the Penguins need now. This isn’t a team that’s relying on their veterans to make the big plays, though they are certainly contributing. (I mean, I could write a whole article on Hornqvist alone).

The depth and the ability to integrate young players into a fairly veteran team is important because there is no way to predict injuries. If in later months another player is injured, the club will be used to adjusting and know that there are players in the AHL that they can depend on.

Johnson, Blandisi, and Lafferty made up the fourth line both nights and were stellar. They had a combined five goals in both games, which is what the Penguins — well, any team — needs if they want to compete for a Stanley Cup. They all looked comfortable on the ice and created opportunities that helped propel the Penguins to resounding victories. For any team, having four reliable lines is key, and the three AHL players were not only reliable but also productive.

Right now, there are only two forwards (who aren’t currently injured) who haven’t scored yet this season: Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun. I’m inclined to give Tanev a pass on this because he’s drawn a league-high seven penalties so far this season and has been excellent producing chances and melding with whatever line he plays on. He’s a big physical presence, not unlike Guentzel, and has been the kind of player that Pittsburgh needs. Kahun had a slow start to the season but looked like he might be ready to start making an impact back when the Penguins played the Ducks. I’ll reserve judgement; check back later.

Winnipeg Jets Kyle Connor Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist
Winnipeg Jets’ Kyle Connor and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Patric Hornqvist (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade)

It’d be remiss not to talk about Crosby, even though everyone is talking about him — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (from ‘Nearly everyone chips in as Penguins beat Jets, sweep first back-to-back,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/13/2019) and CBS Sports for example. The Penguins’ captain has been leading by example. He has points in every game thus far (the only other Penguin who can say that is Letang) and a total of 10 so far. He’s been a force on the ice, his line easily dominating in the last two games, whether or not it’s Simon or Tanev rounding out Crosby and Guentzel.

New Team Balance, New Questions

The Penguins have put aside any lingering concern from their season opener performance and losing some big names temporarily to injury. In their first road trip and their first back-to-back, they stuck to the new balance they’ve found, played consistently, and had depth from across the roster. They didn’t have an energetic, high-scoring night in Minnesota and then a disgraceful loss in Winnipeg, which would have brought up some concerns about how consistently the Penguins could keep playing this successful new brand of hockey. Instead, they came out and even though Crosby, Letang, Hornqvist didn’t score goals in the Winnipeg game, it didn’t matter because they were defending, creating chances, and assisting on the goals that other players scored. That’s how a team sport like hockey has to function, and the Penguins were in top form.

The question now is what will happen when the players out with injuries start to trickle back into the lineup. Some of them will obviously return to their previous positions (Malkin), but for others, there might be question marks (Rust, Bjugstad). If Lafferty and Blandisi continue playing as well as they have been, the coaching staff might have some difficult decisions to make, and they already might have some tough defensive ones to make with Marino really proving himself these past few games. And of course, any change in the lineup could upset this new balance the Penguins have found. But let’s not worry about that just yet. Instead, let’s settle in and enjoy this brutal clinic in readjustment and team effort that the Penguins are putting on and hope it continues.