Penguins’ Depth Avenges Season-Opening Loss

It was an exciting game last night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. It was the kind of high-scoring, wild night that the city, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, have needed after a disappointing opening game and the haunting memory of last season. Since the Penguins’ lackluster start to the season on Thursday, there has been speculation about the team’s trajectory. While the resounding win is nice, the depth displayed last night is of particular note.

Points Recorded Across Lines by Veterans and Newbies

The Penguins scored seven goals by five different players: Kris Letang, Marcus Pettersson, and Teddy Blueger, while Patric Hornqvist and Jared McCann had two apiece. Let’s break that down a little bit. That’s two goals from defensemen, Letang and Pettersson, on two different defense pairings. Justin Schultz got an assist on Letang’s goal, and Jack Johnson was even credited with an assist on Hornqvist’s first goal. Looks like all of the players got the wake-up call. That kind of push is the concerted group effort that the Penguins did not make on Thursday and need to in order to do well in an increasingly competitive league.

Sidney Crosby was flanked by Jake Guentzel (not a surprise) and Dominik Simon (not a huge surprise but maybe a “hmm”), and the line went to work. They were tough and found their footing in the second period, generating good plays and chances. They may not have scored, but Crosby and Guentzel got assists on Hornqvist’s second goal.

Of course, Evgeni Malkin began by centering the second line with Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev on his wings and while they didn’t score, they certainly pushed the team forward. Galchenyuk got two assists, one on McCann’s second goal and another on Letang’s. Tanev had an assist on Blueger’s goal, his first as a Penguin. If players, especially Crosby and Malkin, aren’t putting pucks into the net themselves, they need to be integral in helping their teammates do so, and last night they were.

Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar/File)

Hornqvist and McCann starting on the third line had stellar nights. There isn’t much else to say; the numbers speak for themselves. Rounding out the forwards, Blueger centered the fourth line flanked by Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Kahun. Blueger finished off Pittsburgh’s scoring for the night with a goal in the third, and Kahun had an assist, his first point as a Penguin.

Missing Stars, Penguins Still Score

While a seven-goal game from five players sounds like the prime example of depth from the Penguins, the true storyline is how well the Penguins did when they had to change lines (which happened even before they lost players to penalties and injuries). When Crosby was out for a fighting major in the last five minutes of the second period, the Penguins still did well; they scored, in fact — twice. While Crosby’s skill and leadership are undeniable, there is always risk of injury, and seeing the team perform at a high level without their superstar was encouraging. Add to that, their performance late in the game despite the two injuries that were suffered and the consequent line shifting, and there are good things happening with the Penguins’ depth and chemistry. That’s something that was lacking last season and seems to go hand-in-hand with the team’s hunger to win.

Unfortunately, both Malkin and Nick Bjugstad suffered injuries, the extents of which are not currently known. Malkin went into the boards awkwardly late in the second and did not skate in the third period. He had been seemingly on the road to bouncing back to his usual form after his lost season in 2018-19, scoring the first goal of the season for the Penguins. Hopefully, his injury isn’t serious and he’ll be back on the ice soon; otherwise the Penguins will have some holes to fill with Bryan Rust out of the lineup, too. The Penguins are starting to show that they have depth and don’t need to rely on Crosby and Malkin, but it’s too soon in the season to expect the team to replace many important guys without a dip in playing level and team cohesion.

Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, Mike Sullivan
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and assistant Sergei Gonchar stand behind their bench (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Whatever it was that sparked this energy in the Penguins, be it Malkin’s comments after Thursday’s game or the team’s general frustration, they have shown that all players have something to contribute. Any fears about the Penguins not wanting it badly enough or not integrating the new players with the veterans can be put to rest for a while. They came out with a 7-2 win; a good response to a sub-par first showing.

Now let’s not get carried away; there are a lot of games left to be played, obviously. However, the team’s response to Thursday night’s loss is heartening. The big takeaway? Every line worked hard and was generally successful no matter what the combination of players, and the Penguins came out with a win to show for it. This is a team that is starting to find a rhythm across all lines and players (discounting the power play), not a team planning to rely on their big names to do the work.