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Who (and what) the Penguins need to lean on to get through this tough injury stretch

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They need their starting goalie to be great, while the head coach is facing his biggest challenge yet behind the team’s bench.

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The injuries are not stopping and things are starting to look a little dire for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the coming weeks.

A quick rundown of what all is happening at the moment, just in case you somehow forgot.

  • Sidney Crosby is still sidelined for a few more weeks.
  • Nick Bjugstad is right there with him.
  • Bryan Rust is day-to-day but not practicing on Monday.
  • Justin Schultz is out long-term.
  • Brian Dumoulin is out eight weeks after undergoing ankle surgery.

That is your captain and best player (and still one of the two best players in the world), another top-six winger that has been one of your hottest forwards this season and a perfect “glue” player that holds everything together, your third-line center, and TWO top-four defensemen.

The Penguins have managed to overcome injuries all season, so they are definitely used to it, but this is a lot to deal with right now.

A LOT.

Big picture the Penguins still look like a Stanley Cup contender when they are healthy because of the way they have played when they have most of their top players in the lineup. But getting the lineup back to that status might take some time. That means they have to figure out a way to hang around and keep scratching out points by any means necessary over the next couple of weeks.

There are several people they are going to need to rely on to make that happen.

Matt Murray

Whether the Penguins have a fully healthy lineup or the one that is currently held together by duct tape, they need more from their starting goalie. A lot more. He had an absolutely brutal month of November and it has been nearly a full month (Nov. 9 against Chicago) since he has earned a win (the only one of his starts since then that they have won was the game against Vancouver where he was pulled with the team trailing 4-2 in the second period).

Murray had a similar start to the 2018-19 season (injury related) before going on a roll starting around mid-December and helped carry the team to a playoff spot.

Goaltending is hockey’s biggest X-factor because of the way a dominant goaltending performance can elevate a mediocre team, and the way a poor goaltending performance can ruin a great team. Lately the Penguins have been getting more of the latter. They need more of the former starting right now.

Mike Sullivan

This might be the biggest challenge Sullivan has faced as head coach of the Penguins, and I do not say that lightly because of the situation he inherited in the middle of the 2015-16 season.

But for as challenging as that situation was, expectations were probably as low as they had ever been during the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era. No one expected that season to turn into anything. Anything they did after that was playing with house money, even as the team went deep into the playoffs. With everything the organization has accomplished since then, and with the potential this team has showed this season, expectations are still high and there is still pressure to capitalize one more time on what is left of the core’s most productive years.

So far this season Sullivan has done a masterful job and pushed the right buttons to keep this team playing the right way and collecting points. His challenge just keeps getting tougher.

Special teams

With two top-six forwards and two top-four defensemen sidelined it might be a bit of a struggle to keep carrying play the way they have at 5-on-5, which means the power play and penalty kill are going to have to be better than they have been over the past couple of weeks.

Ever since the penalty kill had its stretch of consecutive success kills come to an end that unit has been shaky, to the point where Sullivan said after Saturday’s game that the unit is losing them games.

The power play has been a season-long point of frustration.

Leaning on special teams is not a great game-plan for an 82-game season, but the Penguins do not need to rely on these units for a full season. Just a few weeks.

Kris Letang

Simply put, he is the one established top-line player this defense has right now. It is him, a couple of promising young players that have been huge surprises the past two years (John Marino and Marcus Pettersson), Jack Johnson, and some roster filler.

Letang has always been a big-minute player, and when he is at his best there are few people on the planet that are better than him at what he does. He did not have a particularly strong week in his return from injury, but he has the ability to take over games and carry the defense. He did it for the entire 2018-19 season, and he was doing it this season before the injury.

They need that version in December.

Patric Hornqvist and Alex Galchenyuk

Look, it’s easy to say that they need to lean on Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel at forward right now. Everyone knows that, and given the way they have played so far there should be little doubt they can continue to do that.

So let’s focus on two other forwards they need more from: Hornqvist and Galchenyuk.

They need more from them on the power play (an area both players are supposed to excel in) and they need more from them at even-strength.

Galchenyuk is clearly in Sullivan’s dog house, but he has one of the best shots on the team and is the type of player that SHOULD be able to have some finishing ability.

As for Hornqvist, I feel like his style of play buys him the sort of leash that other players simply do not get. You can never question his effort or desire. You know he is always going to bring everything he has on every single shift. He is going to have his teammate’s back. He is going to be a truth-teller and a voice of reason in good times and in bad. All of that is needed and admirable.

But they also need some production.

He has one point in six games (zero in the past five) and only one goal in his past 10 games. It seems like anytime he needs to make a skill player or something that doesn’t require him to be a bull in a china shop it just immediately fizzles out. Finesse plays have never really been his strength, but it seems that his play and decision-making with the puck has regressed even more this season. They simply need more.

As a late-developing note, Hornqvist left practice Monday before it was over, his status remains unknown from now and could add to, instead of counter-balance the injury woes.