By Stu Hackel
It's nine Ws in a row for the Pittsburgh Penguins, all without Sidney Crosby, who has been absent for most of the season. And during these nine games, top defenseman Kris Letang has missed five and most of a sixth. Paul Martin, another top four defenseman, has missed the last two. Yet the Pens kept on winning. After defeating Boston on Sunday afternoon, Pittsburgh was a mere two points behind the Rangers for the top spot in the East before the Blueshirts eked out an overtime win that evening against the Islanders.
How do the Penguins do it?
We've noted before that Pittsburgh plays the same way regardless of who is in or out of the lineup. And the Penguins have had to contend with lots of different lineups, thanks to their more than 320 man-games lost to injury this season. They've been able to survive because of their roster's unheralded depth.
Take a veteran like Pascal Dupuis, who scored this insurance tally against the Bruins on Sunday.
It's a great little play by a guy who is not known as a big scorer, but who displays excellent speed and good hands while toasting Boston's Milan Lucic at the blueline and then deking goalie Marty Turco for the backhand finish.
It also shows how well the Penguins transition from defense to offense, and their game intelligence as Dupuis starts to break forward as soon as he realizes that Jordan Staal has the puck unchecked in the corner (and in the above video, you can hear someone shout "Let's go!" as soon as Staal gathers it in). Dupuis also knows that Lucic, who is not a defenseman, is the guy he has to beat, since Lucic is covering for Zdeno Chara, who was pursuing the puck deep in the offensive zone. When Dupuis saw that Chara had the puck deep in the zone about 10 seconds before this play began, he snuck a look to the blue line to see who was there, and he saw Lucic. Dupuis takes off, coming right at him, and Lucic decides to charge in rather than back off, which would have been the prudent thing to do. Lucic gets caught by the oncoming Dupuis, who slips the puck between his legs and then has nothing but open ice in front of him.
Dupuis has produced nine points during Pittsburgh's nine-game streak. He's not a point-per-game player because he's often been given a checking role during his career. Even when he's played with top forwards, he's been the guy on the line who plays responsible hockey so the others can push forward. He gives his team what it needs in order to win. No team in hockey can contend for a championship without guys like Dupuis, who has not been alone in stepping up his play during the Pens' run.
Thirty-seven year old Steve Sullivan, whose small frame has been battered by injuries throughout his career, brought his skill set to Pittsburgh this season and he's got 13 points in his last 11 games. There have also been timely contributions from other unlikely sources, like the game-opening goal on Sunday by Arron Asham, the Pens' best antagonist now that Matt Cooke has reformed (as SI.com's Michael Farber discussed last week). Even defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who no one would confuse with Letang for offensive creativity, has a goal and two assists during this run, which is saying something, considering that he's got only nine points for the season.
These are veteran players who have been through the wars and know what it takes. When this time of year rolls around, these guys know how to elevate their play, not give in to obstacles and distractions and play to win each night.
Still, the Penguins remain blessed with Staal and Evgeni Malkin. They would be the top two centers on most teams in the NHL, but slide down to two and three when Crosby is in the lineup (unless one is on Crosby's wing). Since coming back in early February from a knee sprain that sidelined him for a month, Staal has seven goals and 10 assists in 14 games, registering points in all but two of those games, a marvelous pace. And yet, he's been overshadowed, probably unfairly, by Malkin, whose productivity this entire season has kept him in the lead for the scoring title, just ahead of Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux. In the last month, Malkin has piled up 22 points (13 of them assists) in 14 games, including a five-point game against the Jets and a four-point night against Tampa Bay.
It's Malkin's partnership with his big winger, "The Real Deal" James Neal, that has unlocked the best in both of them. A dependable 20-plus goal scorer for Dallas, Neal was acquired from the Stars last season just before the trade deadline. He was going to be the big, strong winger that Crosby had lacked since Marian Hossa bolted for Detroit. But Crosby never returned to the lineup and Neal could only manage a single goal in 20 regular season games and another in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, Neal has played with more confidence and consistency from the beginning. He topped the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career and was rewarded with a new deal (six years, $30 million) before the deadline. Right after he signed it, the NHL's star-making machinery kicked in and Neal became the subject of this installment of the league's 36 Hours series.
And then Neal went into his first prolonged goal drought of the season: zip for nine games. During the Penguins' entire winning streak, he didn't bulge the twine until Sunday.But he was chipping in assists, in part because a healthy Malkin has regained his elite form this season. Together, Neal and Malkin are a pair of big men roaming the ice for pucks and bodies, not at all shy about knocking down anyone who gets in their way. Along with linemate Chris Kunitz, a middleweight by comparison, they've become one of the most imposing forces in the league. And yesterday, by dumping the usually undumpable Zdeno Chara, Neal showed a national TV audience that he'd answer the call against a Boston team that is known to run other clubs out of buildings.
A big part of the Pens' game plan against Boston was to target Chara for a rough ride, and they did that. Neal and Kunitz each got him twice and Cooke got him once. Taking advantage of a banged-up team that had played the day before, the Pens got Chara off his game by throwing the puck in his corner and smashing into him.
And that brings us to the real essence of Pittsburgh's style. Like the Bruins when they are at their best -- and Boston hasn't been at its best for a while now -- the Penguins appear to be one of those teams that can play any style and win. Like any good coach, Dan Bylsma designs his game plans based on his opponent. The difference is that he's got the horses to execute them all. They showed yesterday they could win a physical game against the Bruins, but unlike some of the other rugged NHL teams -- Rangers, Flyers, and Canucks, for example -- they don't take an abundance of penalties. While the Rangers and Bruins are both perhaps wearing out a bit, the Penguins are the hot team.
They'll get a rest for a few days and then head to New York to take on the Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Thursday. There is talk that both Crosby and Letang could be back for that game, but whenever they return, their inclusion in this already battle-hardened lineup could make the Penguins a Stanley Cup favorite next month.
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