It seemed as if a dark cloud settled over downtown Pittsburgh the night Evgeni Malkin accidentally tripped over Kris Letang and skidded awkwardly into the boards.
Before that untimely crash, Malkin was surging. He looked like a man hell-bent on making sure his disappointing 2018-19 season performance was ancient history. And in one shift, all of that exciting revenge tour noise came to a thundering halt.
Then even more injuries started piling up. Bryan Rust was already nursing a broken hand, which was a big loss in its own right, but once Malkin was ruled out, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, and for a short period, Patric Hornqvist all started dropping from the Penguins’ depth chart.
In came the expected AHL call-up Sam Lafferty and the maybe not-so-expected Andrew Agozzino. Defenseman John Marino also got his first NHL start in a game that came after an head-scratching choice to go with seven defensemen. Soon after that, Agozzino, after a lackluster outing, was sent back down, making way for the NHL returns of Adam Johnson and Joseph Blandisi.
Pittsburgh was forced to ice a largely AHL-heavy lineup, and things seemed like they were going to be awfully bleak until their second best player and regulars regained their health.
Instead, the AHL call-ups fared surprisingly well, acted as a shot in the arm to a depleted Penguins’ lineup, became a much-needed tourniquet to stop the temporary bleeding.
Marino has been extremely impressive in his small sample size on the blue line, and that’s even considering being tied to his partner Jack Johnson. His focus on swatting away opposing team’s offensive zone entries, winning puck battles down low, and connecting on breakout passes has been a breath of fresh air to a perpetually inadequate bottom-pairing. He’s aced the eye test so far.
For the forwards, Lafferty shoots around the rink like a charged-up Energizer bunny, and it seems like in every single one of his shifts, he’s involved in the play in one positive way or another. He is noticeably effective and is adding a spark to the fourth line. And as we saw in Minnesota, he will step in to defend his teammate without hesitation when he sees something he doesn’t like.
Head coach Mike Sullivan agrees.
“I really liked (Lafftery’s) game. His speed is so evident,” Sullivan said after the Jets loss. “He’s such a strong skater. He’s strong on the puck himself. I think Sam has the potential to be a serviceable, valuable part of this organization.”
And as we saw Saturday night vs. an admittedly lacking Wild team, Lafferty, as well as Johnson and Blandisi, all added ticks to the score sheet’s goals category in a high-scoring affair. Lafferty and Johnson are the sixth duo to each score first NHL goals in the same game for the Penguins.
The concern for when all the regular starters—especially Malkin—went down was that the Crosby line was going to be shouldered with the bulk of the offensive responsibility. That’s still true, and naturally, Sidney Crosby. Jake Guentzel, and Dominik Simon have been taking that in stride, but the fact that the Penguins are receiving depth scoring despite the talent difference from their AHL guys alleviates a lot of that pressure.
If the Black Aces can continue contributing at the rate that they are, both on the score sheet and via necessary intangibles, the Penguins might actually be able to weather their unfortunate stumble out of the gates.