With a lack of too much interesting stuff going on, one idea I had was to check out how the Penguins were doing a calendar year ago. This was about the time the train was really coming off the track as far as injuries went, with Brian Dumoulin going down in late November with his ankle injury to join Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bjugstad on the injury list.
That made for a pretty wild lineup on 12/7/2019, when the Pens’ played the second game on a back-to-back. On 12/6/2019, the Pens hung on to defeat Arizona 2-0 in Phil Kessel’s return to Pittsburgh. On 12/7, they traveled to Detroit to meet the lowly Detroit Red Wings, losers of 10 straight games for a Saturday night game.
And, boy, Mike Sullivan had his work cut out for him. Here was his lineup:
Juuso Riikola and Joseph Blandisi were the healthy scratches on the night.
This lineup is interesting in a lot of ways.
—Matt Murray is the goalie being as Tristan Jarry played and earned the shutout win the night before. This was at about the height of the period where Jarry was in the zone and playing very well. Murray was struggling. He’d give up three goals on the night on just 28 shots, but two were on Detroit power plays. This game was also 4-1 Pens early into the third period and the team shifted into coast mode.
—Dominik Kahun scored that fourth goal, his eighth on the season. Is a fast start why he has some bizarre levels of popularity among Pens’ fans? Kahun would only go onto score two goals (only one at ES) with the Pens in his next 21 games before getting traded. Nice job piling on to make a 3-1 game a 4-1 game in the third period, though!
—The Guentzel-Malkin-Rust line was a lot of fun, and they were clicking in this game. Rust was held without a point, but Guentzel+Malkin each had a goal and two assists on the game and factored into all of the first three goals the Pens scored on this night. Guentzel batting a puck out of mid-air to get it to Malkin to finish off one of his patented spinning shots was really fancy.
—With the Pens up 2-0 and in control of the game early in the second period, Alex Galchenyuk took a tripping penalty that Detroit would get a goal and get back into the game on the ensuing power play. Galchenyuk would only play five more shifts on the night, including just two shifts in the third period for 1:39 on ice. In a blowout game. Against a last place time. On the second night of a b-2-b that had travel, when surely the coach would have preferred to even out ice time a bit. Yikes. Just nothing went right for Galchenyuk in Pittsburgh and this game was a microcosm of that struggle.
—One thing I’d love to ask Mike Sullivan, if guaranteed with a straight-forward and honest answer, is why he never played Marcus Pettersson and Kris Letang together after the Dumoulin injury. Natural Stat Trick has Pettersson+Letang together for just 69 minutes in the whole season at 5v5. Given line changes on the fly, this is basically a rounding error of time spent together just cobbling up into basically nothing. Sullivan played Marino and Letang together for a handful of games, putting two right handed defensemen on the top pair. And a rookie early on in his first season up there as well. Does he really not trust Pettersson against top competition? The metrics suggest that defensively Pettersson is a pretty similar player and decent replacement for Dumoulin. Sullivan never saw it like that. Why he didn’t is very interesting to me.
—But, the bizarre decision to use four RHD led to Chad Ruhwedel getting dressed instead of Riikola, and Ruhwedel was great in this game, scoring a goal and adding an assist.
—Speaking of Pens’ defensemen, everyone’s “favorite” Jack Johnson’s game on 12/7: 20:53 TOI, 2 SOG, 4 blocked shots (most on team), 3 hits (tied most on team)....Also 2 official giveaways and was on ice for both PPG against that the Pens gave up and was on ice for none of the 5 goals Pittsburgh scored. Pretty typical JJ game that we will all miss. Sike.
—Remember when Stefan Noesen was a thing? This was his third game with the NHL Pens (after scoring a goal vs. STL the week prior in his Pittsburgh debut) and Noesen was red hot being as he had 14 goals in 22 games with AHL Wilkes-Barre to start the season. That goal vs. STL was the only point he had with the Pens, he was waived and claimed the following week by San Jose and out of the organization.
The Pens would go onto lose their next game a few days later by a 4-1 score at home to Montreal. But Pittsburgh would finish December in a very strong way by winning seven of the eight games following that MTL loss to close out 2019 looking pretty good and seeing Crosby back on the ice in practice. Unfortunately, the season would be further derailed when Guentzel crashed into the boards and suffered a major shoulder injury to further chop up the amount of time that Pittsburgh had a healthy Crosby+Malkin+Guentzel to basically nothing in the 2019-20 regular season.