Friday night the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a 4-2 win over the Dallas Stars to secure the longest active win streak in the NHL (which was then broken Saturday night by the 3-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights). It’s been quite a whirlwind for the team that was swept by the Islanders last season and had a dubious start to the season. At the end of last season, general manager Jim Rutherford called the team out for a lack of hunger, which led to their early playoff exit and appeared to threaten the start of this season. But after a rude awakening in the season-opener loss, the Penguins are now 5-2-0. And a big reason why? Well, there are two, one of them obvious, Sidney Crosby, and the other? The defense.
Let’s start with the obvious guy, Kris Letang. He’s the first Penguin defenseman to ever hit 500 points, and just this month he’s scored four goals, already looking on track to beat the 16 he had last season. In the past (even as recently as Wednesday night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche), he has taken some heat for bad turnovers and misreadings of plays that have led to goals against and a long history of injuries, but there’s a reason why he’s stayed in Pittsburgh. He’s good. Friday night he scored two of the Penguins’ four goals with help from defense partner Brian Dumoulin.
Dumoulin has been solid for the Penguins this season, as he has been for most of his career. The Dumoulin-Letang pairing is one of the best in the league — a total combined plus-10 after the game last night against Vegas. Letang’s offensive success comes down to, yes, his own talent, but also, as The Athletic’s Rob Rossi reports, Letang’s trust in Dumoulin. (from ‘Brian Dumoulin does more than watch when Kris Letang scores beauties for the Penguins,’ The Athletic, 10/19/2019)
Their long history together has given them a natural give-and-take, leading Rossi to write, “Hockey people should probably call Dumoulin-Letang one of the NHL’s elite pairings. It is arguably the biggest reason the Penguins have won five consecutive games as they head into a showdown with the Vegas Golden Knights in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.” Now, Dumoulin was scratched for the game against Vegas after being on the roster initially (we’ll keep him on an injury watch), which threw off the defensive pairings. While it is obviously less than ideal to have another core player out with an injury, the Penguins have proven that they can adjust.
Let’s take a quick gander back to Wednesday night. The Avalanche were in town (that was a 3-2 OT win for the Penguins), and Brandon Tanev got his first point and first game-winning goal as a Penguin. As exciting as the game was to watch, it was probably just as exciting for defenseman Juuso Riikola who played fourth-line left wing. Yep, with a day-to-day injury to forward Jared McCann, the Penguins decided not to recall another Wilkes-Barre/Scranton player and instead gave Riikola the opportunity to make his NHL forward debut. Was he stellar? Not by a long shot. But was he willing to step up and do what was asked of him without argument or hesitation? Absolutely.
Riikola stepped up again last night against Vegas as a forward, on the left wing this time, hopping onto the fourth line again after McCann — who did play Friday night — was out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. Again, Riikola wasn’t spectacular, but he wasn’t horrible. In a mad scramble in front of Marc-Andre Fleury late in the second, he was in there with Patric Hornqvist and the other forwards trying to shove the puck into the net before taking a big hit. Putting him in as a forward definitely isn’t a move that the Penguins want to make long-term, but they’ve been doing admirably with a roster that is too heavy on defense.
The defense, like the entire Penguins team, honestly, is in an all-hands-on-deck situation, and everyone is pitching in. In the past few games alone: Erik Gudbranson had a big hit early in the third period against Max Pacioretty, Jack Johnson was put into the lineup last night on a last-minute notice after not skating in warmups, John Marino had shots on goal, Letang scored, Dumoulin backed him up, Riikola played forward and had a great chance against Fleury.
The defense roster has a combined 24 points so far this season (10 of those belonging to Letang). That’s a good start for a team that hasn’t been able to secure a roster due to injuries. Now last night was not the outcome the Penguins were hoping for, but let’s not panic. It’s early. They played a good game. They had a tough stretch with three games in four days against teams that certainly could make the playoffs. They only lost one of the games. The defense is playing well and helping to generate offensive chances. The thing to watch now is how many defensemen the Penguins decide to carry. There have been trade rumors circulating for just about forever, and the team is overloaded on defense while down on forwards. While this style of play has clearly been working for them, something’s got to give some time.