“We don’t really talk about who’s out of our lineup. We talk a whole lot about who’s in our lineup”
That’s the message Mike Sullivan has tried to instill in the Pittsburgh Penguins this season – even if circumstances have made it nearly impossible to do so.
The Penguins, from the moment the puck dropped on the 2021-22 season, have found themselves behind the eight-ball. Beginning the schedule with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the shelf didn’t exactly brighten their outlook. And when Crosby returned a month later only for Malkin to remain out until mid-January, that didn’t help, either.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. Pittsburgh’s depth has been tested tremendously this season amid a cavalcade of injuries and absences, particularly wreaking havoc among their forward corps, that once threatened the team’s ability to stay afloat in a hotly-contested Metropolitan Division.
The stats don’t lie, either.
The Penguins have suffered the third-most man-games lost to injuries among forwards of any team in the NHL – a ranking which should, in theory, be one spot higher by ignoring Vegas’ league-best total that includes Jack Eichel’s recovery from neck surgery.
The surface-level numbers fail to paint the full picture, as well.
The Penguins have not been forced to endure lengthy absences from a few bottom-six tweeners. No, these hits have been far more painful, primarily targeting the team’s top-six stars through which their success largely runs.
Crosby and Malkin’s injuries have already been documented, with both being respectfully devastating to Pittsburgh’s overall attack. But then there’s Bryan Rust’s 22-game absence with a lower-body injury. Factor in how Jason Zucker has also missed 21 games to this point with more to come, as he’s currently listed as week-to-week after undergoing core muscle surgery on Jan. 20, and you start to see a pattern. Jake Guentzel missed roughly three weeks with an upper-body injury in mid-December, briefly robbing the Penguins of their leading scorer. Teddy Blueger suffered a broken jaw on Jan. 23 and is only around halfway through his six-to-eight-week recovery timeline.
And on, and on.
Of the six players that could conceivably make up the Penguins’ top two forward lines when healthy – Crosby, Malkin, Rust, Guentzel, Zucker, and Jeff Carter — five have missed extended periods this season, with four seeing their absences stretch for at least 10 games.
How do you possibly prepare for that?
You don’t, really. You just look to the next man up.
“We talk a lot about the opportunity in front of us,” explained Sullivan ahead of the Penguins’ meeting with the Maple Leafs in Toronto last week.
“When players go down, whether it’s through injuries or whether it’s through COVID, it provides opportunities for others to step up. And we believe, regardless of who we have in our lineup, there’s an expectation that we have what it takes to win.”
Sullivan’s players have been meeting that expectation thus far despite some truly hairy hurdles thrust into their path.
The Penguins sit second in the Metropolitan Division standings at the moment with an impressive 31-13-8 record through 52 games played. They’re fifth in the overall NHL standings, too, and just four points behind the surging Carolina Hurricanes for the division lead thanks to a two-game losing skid that otherwise served as an opportunity to draw even.
No matter, though. Sullivan’s Penguins have faced tougher challenges than a pair of measly wins.
Despite the injury bug gutting nearly the entire top of their lineup, the Penguins have played stellar hockey to this point, earning the eighth-best goal-differential in the league at the time of writing to go with the second-best penalty kill that is certainly helped by the NHL’s fourth-highest team save-percentage.
How the Penguins managed to achieve this with so many holes in their lineup is exactly how Sullivan described it: seizing the opportunity.
A 37-year-old Jeff Carter being thrust into the number one center role with Crosby and Malkin on the shelf to start the season presented a recipe for disaster. But Carter kept the ship afloat just long enough to allow Crosby to return, with Carer then proceeding to rack up a decent 29 points in 46 games, and earn a tidy two-year extension for his efforts.
Evan Rodrigues is perhaps the most drastic of the Penguins’ forward replacement, going from a bottom-six afterthought to a top-six necessity during the team’s most barren stretches, crushing his previous career-highs in both goals and points in nearly half the time. Without Rodrigues’ 16 goals and 34 points, who knows how the Penguins manage to maintain offense production while missing their top weapons.
On the blueline, Kris Letang elevated himself to a point-per-game player on pace for the best offensive season of his lengthy career, while Mike Matheson proceeded to play the best hockey of his career, taking on tougher matchups to positive results and even chipping in points at a higher-than-ever clip.
“That’s the narrative that goes through our team – day in and day out,” reiterated Sullivan about the Penguins’ next-man-up mentality.
“We’re not going to dwell on circumstances that we can’t control. We’re just going to focus on the opportunity in front of us and how we can maximize that.”
And the Penguins have done that. In spades, even. But no discussion about their success to this point can be had without mentioning the resurgence of Tristan Jarry.
Jarry looked done after his team’s early exit from the 2021 postseason. The 26-year-old was dreadful in Pittsburgh’s first-round meeting with the New York Islanders, allowing four or more goals in four of the series’ six games, including a stretch from game three-six in which Jarry posted save percentages of .867, .846, .893, and .792.
He finished with a .888 on the whole.
There were serious questions as to how Jarry could conceivably come back from a performance like that. And, perhaps more pressingly, how the Penguins could convince another team to take him off their hands.
But management gave Jarry another shot. And he’s rewarding them.
Jarry currently sits with a sparkling .922 save percentage and three shutouts through 41 appearances thus far, generating a point-share of 8.2 that lands him fifth among all NHL netminders. He’s been Pittsburgh’s rock this season — precisely when they needed him most.
And that’s what the 2021-22 Penguins have defined themselves by: a collective elevation to keep the ship on course. When one player goes down, another rises up to take his place, attacking this new assignment with intense vigor and without abandon.
It all stems from the initial mindset that Sullivan has drilled into his team. And so far, that mindset has allowed the Penguins to not only stay afloat in the choppy waters of the NHL playoff race, but surge on ahead, with new heights appearing on the horizon.