The NHL season can be a slog and a grind, a battle of attrition. The Penguins know this well. Early in the season as many as four of their top defensemen were all hurt at the same time in early February. That tide has receded, and Pittsburgh’s defensemen are all healthy and available, save a depth piece and recent addition in Mark Friedman.
The problem now is the injury bug just shifted over a position. First it was Jason Zucker, and Jared McCann. Then, worse of all it targeted centers this week as Teddy Blueger is now out “longer term” and Evgeni Malkin has been placed on IR and will miss at least a week following his injury Tuesday.
With four key forwards injured, the Pens’ depth is in shambles. Evan Rodrigues is centering a scoring line. Unreliable and unproductive players in Sam Lafferty and Mark Jankowski are on the third line. A player who cleared waivers in Colton Sceviour and another who hasn’t played in the NHL since 2018-19 in Frederick Gaudreau are fourth line staples.
It’s not a pretty picture, and while attention may turn as a reflex to the general manager’s office to see what help could be coming, that may be looking at the wrong door.
Trades in the NHL now have been ground almost to a halt. Many teams are near the salary cap. In a 56 game season, many more teams are close to the playoff cut and attempting to make a push. A two week border quarantine across the US/Canada border has practically closed off that portion of the league from the other side. There just aren’t many trades right now.
So instead of looking outside the organization to find the answers, like the warden from The Shawshank Redemption preached, salvation may lie within for the Penguins this year.
Cue the spotlight on coach Mike Sullivan. Since taking over in December 2015, Sullivan has endured some wicked spells of injury, and he’s well-versed in how to guide a lineup held together with duct tape until it can be fortified with stars. This latest challenge is not new or different.
Feel the calming tone and words from Sullivan after the Pens 3-2 loss last night to the Devils.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” the coach said. “The game doesn’t always go your way. There’s ebbs and flows throughout the course of a 60 minute game. There’s ebbs and flows throughout the course of a season, game to game and week to week.”
“Your ability to handle those situations and move forward in a productive manner is essential to having success. We just have to make sure we react the right way. Resilience is an important aspect.”
That feels very reassuring and steadying to read. As a coach sometimes Sullivan has to cajole, sometimes be harsh, sometimes supportive. Right now it’s definitely a tone of being comforting.
“I thought we had a lot of chances in the second period,” Sullivan said of a period where the Pens out-shot the Devils 22-13 and generated an expected goals percentage of 76.2% in all situations. “I thought we had a lot of momentum. We controlled territory, but obviously that penalty kill goal against was a tough one. We had opportunities to do a better job there, but we didn’t get it done.”
The middle frame was a turning point of the game, with New Jersey striking twice in a 1:37 stretch in the second to push a 1-0 lead out to a sizeable and commanding 3-0 score. From there, the Pens battled back, but the damage was done.
“I thought we pushed in the third as well. We’ve just gotta learn from it and get ready for these guys on Saturday. That’s how we’re going to approach it.”
This approach from Sullivan shows why the Pens have had success even facing adversity. Pittsburgh is now 10-4-0 in the last 14 games without Evgeni Malkin. In the bigger picture, their season outlook probably drastically hinges on Malkin’s condition and the length of his absence, but that is nothing on the ground level that Sullivan and the team can control.
With a steady voice and certainly no panic coming from behind the bench, the players in the lineup can gain strength and apply their focus on rebounding to ride out the ebbs and flows of the next shift, period and game ahead.