You wouldn’t think “Pittsburgh is good” would be a surprising narrative for the 2019-20 NHL season, but based on the raft of injuries the Penguins have gone through, it’s up there for shockers. But here we sit in mid-February, with the Pens sitting first in the Metropolitan Division, despite key players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin and Jake Guentzel all missing significant time at varying points of the season.
Crosby has been, as always, at the front of the charge. Since returning from a core muscle injury in mid-January, the captain has been on the warpath with 23 points in 13 games. And he’s been quite satisfied with his team’s overall effort so far.
“It’s our work ethic,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of adversity and kept playing the same way, regardless of who’s in the lineup. We haven’t looked for excuses at any point, which is important. This time of year is when you get challenged the most. Everybody elevates their game and we have to do the same.”
The incredible thing is, the Penguins aren’t just surviving; they’re thriving this season. Pittsburgh just passed a very strong Washington Capitals squad for first in the division, though Crosby said the team’s motivation lies not in a division title per se, but simply in grabbing as many points as they can down the stretch when everything in the league gets tighter.
What has been apparent is that Pittsburgh has been able to plug in a host of new guys – whether that be traded acquisitions such as Jason Zucker or AHL call-ups like Anthony Angello – without missing a beat.
“We have good players and our hockey operations department has given us the depth we need to compete when guys get hurt,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “We have great character and leadership in our room and these guys never look for excuses. They find ways to win games. When someone goes down, it provides an opportunity for someone else to step up. A lot of it is your own attitude and perception and I give these guys a lot of credit. The expectation is that we have enough to win.”
Having a warrior like Crosby wearing the ‘C’ also helps.
“For sure, he’s a big part of it,” Sullivan said. “Our leadership group in general is a big part of it. Nobody has a higher expectation of our group than ourselves. We’re going to work together, we’re going to do everything we can to try to become the best team we can, we’re going to try to give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Incredibly, a lot of Pittsburgh’s depth has come from surprising places. Dominik Kahun came via trade with Chicago in an understated deal that sent Olli Maatta the other way, while Zach Aston-Reese was a college free agent. Angello and Sam Lafferty weren’t top-100 picks when they were selected by Pittsburgh in the 2014 draft, but both developed over time in the NCAA and are now contributors. Setting the table for these players has been a virtuous cycle for the Penguins.
“This is a really great group of guys,” Angello said. “Everyone works hard, everyone wants to make each other better and win a championship. It’s pretty easy coming to the rink every day.”
And again, it comes back to Crosby: he leads by example with his attitude and his demeanor, providing excellent lessons for new teammates every day.
“It’s a mindset that he’s had since he was drafted,” Angello said. “He’s a pro, in and out. From the way he carries himself, the way he treats his teammates, the staff, the fans – it’s honestly really cool to watch. I grew up idolizing him and it’s really cool to watch him and learn what I can from him.”
The one downside to Pittsburgh’s constant push for a championship is that the prospect cupboards are pretty bare. The Penguins have already traded away their first- and second-rounders for the 2020 draft and currently have just four picks total. But when your window is closing, you have to go for it, right? That was the logic behind the Zucker deal with Minnesota and it’s hard to fault GM Jim Rutherford for aiming high when he still has Crosby and Malkin as his team’s top two centers.
But the captain isn’t going to get hung up on windows.
“You could make a point for that based on age and history,” Crosby said. “I could see that. But there’s always a lot of predictions and projections that aren’t always right, too. Regardless of what side of them you’re on, you gotta go out there and play. We believe in our group and experience can be useful too.”
Three Stanley Cups, two Harts and countless other awards back up Crosby’s theory. And would you really bet against this Penguins team once they get healthy?
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