The Penguins have an unexpected week off, in light of their scheduled opponent for the next two games, the New Jersey Devils having 10 players on the COVID protocol list.
And while the reason for the postponement is an unfortunate reality of attempting to play pro sports in 2021, the perhaps harsh fact of the matter is this break comes at a perfect time for the Pens.
Today would have marked day 12 of a 16 day stretch where Pittsburgh was scheduled to play nine games in just 16 days. Further, the Pens were playing in New York last night, where well over a foot of snow has been dumped in a major storm.
Since the game was cancelled, the Pens were able to delay their exit from NYC. They will practice today there, and then fly home. But they might not have had the choice anyways to be able to make it back for the game in Pittsburgh tonight anyways.
Weather aside, the Pens could really use this breather for health purposes. An astounding five defensemen have already been hurt, including the loss of both top pairing players in Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang. Dumoulin has been placed on long-term injured reserve, he won’t be back in the lineup any time soon. But Letang was listed as day-to-day from his injury on Saturday night. The Pens aren’t scheduled to play again until Saturday night against the Islanders, and timing-wise they might get Letang back for that.
The other big benefit of the unforeseen pause will be practice time this week. Given that the Pens were playing nine games in 16 days, they’ve often been traveling or just cancelling practices on off days, and usually having non-taxing morning skates the day of games.
There was only one week of training camp and no preseason to speak of, which means that the Pens never really got a chance to install their power play. That has been evident, being as it’s gone 1 for 21 in the last six games and managed to look even uglier than that ugly 4.8% conversion rate would suggest.
In fact, Pittsburgh has given up two shorthanded goals in this stretch, so somehow their power play is actually getting OUTSCORED by the opposition in the last two weeks.
“I just think we’re in a mindset where we’re a little too robotic and predictable,” coach Mike Sullivan said last night, in one of the under-statements of the year. “We’ve got to free up our minds a little bit and the best way to do that, in my experience, is just to shoot the puck and create opportunity off of that.”
There’s no doubt that Sullivan is as frustrated as anyone else with this group, calling special teams work a “priority” this week of newfound practices.
Beyond that, the Pens just have to take it a day at a time and just hope the season stays on the rails at this point. Already this season, we have seen two opponents (Washington’s Ilya Samsonov and New York’s Kaapo Kakko) either test positive or go onto the COVID-protocol list shortly after they played the Penguins.
The Devils join teams like Dallas and Carolina who have had rampant, team-wide issues with players testing positive and throwing a wrench into the season’s plans.
As of now the NHL still plans for all teams to play 56 games in the allotted 116 day regular season that they announced. Whether or not that is feasible remains to be seen.
Beyond the injury situation and woefully bad power play, the health and safety factors right now have the Penguins dancing around the rain drops of various opponents testing positive for COVID during a frantic season. One can only avoid so much before getting wet. Fortunately, the Pens’ only brush with protocol this season has been Kasperi Kapanen’s mandatory quarantine after entering the country. At this rate they’re already getting to be more of the exception than the rule.