True Grit

True Grit

This has been uncharted territory in the story of the Pittsburgh Penguins – a team without both its superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Worse still, it couldn’t have come at a more critical part of the hockey season when teams are battling for the top eight spots in conference play, jockeying for positions almost nightly as the number of games yet to be played dwindles, and points from wins become precious commodities. Add to that the fact that this wrench in the works comes such a short time after the return of Jordan Staal who has had to quickly get his standard of play up to excellent in a “zero-to-sixty” car performance kind of way. Just for good measure, make the Penguins’ first test in this new depleted configuration the dreaded New Jersey Devils.

The situation did not bode well, and neither did the outcome. The Devils got on the scoreboard not just first, but twice at 1:22 and 9:51 of the first period. New Jersey took advantage of a team clearly trying to figure out what its new identity was and would be, and they struggled mightily in the critical first frame of the contest. However, these Penguins would not let the Devils run rough-shod over them for the rest of the game. Those two goals were all that was scored, and while the Pens could not break through a well-insulated Martin Brodeur, little by little, they settled down and began to find their footing. As the game progressed, the Penguins began to look stronger and more sure of themselves. It would be their first and only loss over the next 6 games.

In those six games, the Penguins have posted a 4-0 record at home and a 1-1 record on the road. They have battled through strange calls and penalties, including the match penalty against Jordan Staal in their game at the New York Rangers when leader Staal took exception to the constant agitation of Brandon Prust. The straw that broke the camel’s back was against teammate Tyler Kennedy. As Staal came in at Prust, Prust went to lash out with a forearm to Staal’s face. Staal swept it aside followed by a wicked (gloved) left that had an impact on Prust and got Staal ejected. The next day, the one-game suspension was correctly rescinded, but that kind of stand together attitude has really cemented this team from first line to back-up goaltender as in the next game at home versus the New York Islander,s with 16 seconds left, Islander goalie Rick DiPietro decided to interfere with Matt Cooke as he skated past the Islander net, sending Cooke into the corner where a weird scrum ensued.

Brent Johnson, netminding at the other end, witnessed DiPietro’s impertinence and decided that with 16 seconds left, he had nothing to lose by leaving his crease to challenge the offending netminder and stand up for Cooke who does it so many times for them. It was classic and beautiful. DiPietro clearly did not look like he was about to take this engagement too seriously, and he paid dearly for that miscalculation. Johnson, not a lefty, pulled a Jordan Staal (sans glove), grabbed DiPietro and popped him a-la Prust. The difference is, DiPietro apparently has a glass jaw and is now out 4-6 weeks, and wonder of all wonders because Marc-Andre Fleury had to go in net for Johnson in those final seconds, both he and Johnson end up sharing the shut-out. How’s THAT for a deterrent?!

These two instances are just the highlights that stand out, but those along with guys like Arron Asham, Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy, Deryk Engelland and Craig Adams have stood up and stood strong. On top of this kind of activity, game breakdowns and stats are revealing and promising as with each win, the Penguins are gaining confidence and becoming a problem for teams vying for points.

January 22 at home versus the Carolina Hurricanes – In typical Pens-Canes fashion, the first period came across like the opening gambit of a chess match where shots on goal were low, waves of steals and runs being well-defended through the neutral zone made up the complexion of the first frame, ending in a 0-0 tie. When it was all said and done, the Penguins emerged triumphant with a 3-2 win, and each goal showcased nearly every aspect of special teams play: Dustin Jeffrey’s 4-on-4 goal, Mark Letestu’s power play goal, and Pascal Dupuis’s short-handed goal. On the Jeffrey goal it took a hard Brooks Orpik shot with the massive Jordan Staal doing his job in front of the net that allowed Jeffrey to shoot and score from high to the right, just inside the blue line. On the power play goal, Letestu set-up in the F3 position between the circles and took a nifty pass from Chris Kunitz out of the left corner to beat Cam Ward. On the penalty kill, Paul Martin won the puck battle deep in the Penguins’ defensive end to reach Staal who sent a quick pass to a breaking Dupuis.

January 25 at home versus the New York Islanders – When scorers like Crosby and Malkin are out of the lineup, it is not expected that games will be high-scoring, but nonetheless, scoring must occur if wins are to be collected, and any goals gained must be jealously defended to retain the win. While this was the third meeting of these two teams, this game becomes “Round 1″ in the series when suddenly the “blood” between these two teams seems like that between the Pens and the Flyers or Caps, and it took a hard fought effort to ellicit the only goal that came in favor of the Penguins in the 3rd period. Craig Adams, not known for scoring but of incredible value to the team for all his other game-changing intangibles and selfless play tallied the goal in the third by getting the rebound in traffic in front of the net off an Asham shot.

February 1 at the New York Rangers – The first game after the All-Star break, and once again, the Penguins seemed to falter as they had with the New Jersey Devils, falling prey to two goals. Deryk Engelland’s fight with Prust early in the 2nd period and Staal’s ejection late in that period and all, the Penguins battled throughout the game, opening their scoring with Dustin Jeffrey’s power play goal. Mike Rupp and Chris Kunitz each contributed even strength goals where Rupp initiated a center drive and picked up the garbage on a Max Talbot shot, and Kunitz, working in front of the net, deflected a shot by defenseman Zbynek Michalek. After overtime expired, a seven-round shoot-out saw a very cool Dustin Jeffrey end it by breaking down Henrik Lundqvist, snatching the 2nd point from the Rangers for the ultimate win.

February 2 at home versus the New York Islanders (Round 2) – It seems these retooled Penguins decided that they did not want to relive Round 1 by letting the Islanders hang around too long. Two goals five minutes apart in the first period, set the Isles back on their heels. One would never have guessed this was the Penguins’ second in back-to-back games. The 2nd period saw the Isles’ Zenon Konopka trying to rally his team with a heavyweight bout against Pens’ Mike Rupp, but the Penguins held firm. The icing on the cake of this match was Craig Adams’ selfless play as he looked for Max Talbot, hit him with a pass to get Talbot the empty-netter and helped break his teammate’s 26-game scoring drought. Talbot, once again, worked hard despite the drought, and in this particular game, his contributions consisted of 2 shots on goal out of 5 total shots attempted, 3 hits, 1 take-away, no giveaways and an impressive 80% face-off percentage.

February 4 at home versus the Buffalo Sabres – Geno was back and said he was feeling good and ready to go. The Sabres had other ideas, and it wasn’t pretty, starting with throwing a 1-3-1 look. Deja-vue all over again as for the third time, the opponent struck quick and hard in the 1st period with a goal 17 seconds into the game and a second goal a little over six minutes later. Early in the 2nd period, Malkin had gone into the corner to get the puck and as he set his feet, he was heavily checked by Sabres hulking man-child Tyler Myers. All 6-foot-8, 230 pounds of him caught Malkin’s right knee and made it bend in a direction knees simply do not bend. It was hard to watch. Geno crumpled, and now he is out with torn ACL and MCL on that knee, looking like the end of the season for him as that kind of injury will require at least six months of recovery. But these Penguins simply would not say die; they would not lay down and take it. Within less than 4 minutes, Dustin Jeffrey, Tyler Kennedy, and  Matt Cooke each registered even-strength goals to stun the Sabres and make a very clear statement. Then they locked it down defensively. In all, the Penguins registered a bone-jarring 59 hits in their all-the-team, all-the-time win.

And this body of work is what they take into the first meeting with the Washington Capitals since their loss on “home” ice at the Winter Classic. If ever one could measure the true depth and character of a team, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a perfect case-study.

Notables by the Numbers and Other Things

  • Goal Breakdowns – 7 even-strength, 3 power play, 1 short-handed, 1 4-on-4, 1 empty-netter, 1 overtime shoot-out goal: Dustin Jeffrey (4), Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz (2 each), Mark Letestu, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Mike Rupp, Max Talbot and Matt Cooke (1 each). Scoring is coming from all lines.
  • Goal ScorersAssists – 14 different Penguins have contributed led by Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek with 3 each, followed by Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik, Alex Goligoski and Pascal Dupuis with 2 each, and 1 each from Kris Letang, Dustin Jeffrey, Arron Asham, Deryk Engelland, Max Talbot, Craig Adams, and Chris Conner.
  • Face-off Standouts – Prior to his unfortunate injury, Mark Letestu looked like the heir-apparent on face-offs during Sid’s absence posting very respectable 61% and 67% face-off percentages against the Hurricanes and Islanders respectively. Not to be overlooked is Max Talbot who has continued to emerge as a tremendous workhorse. On face-offs, he has posted 57% against the Canes, 67% against the Islanders, and a very impressive 81% in the loss to the Devils. On the latter stat, he was 4/4 (80%) in the offensive zone, 3/3 (100%) in the defensive zone, and 6/8 (75%) in the neutral zone.
  • Defensive Strength – With three cohesive, solid lines of D-men and a smattering of relief work by a seventh defenseman, the Penguins have developed a balanced corps of offenisve-minded, supporting, but defensively responsible players, and it’s bearing out in this string of games. The penalty kill continues to stymie teams finding itself at the top of the league.
  • Goaltending – In a word, SOLID. Fleury and Johnson have combined for days of highlight reel footage, keeping their team in every game with solid, smart netminding. It’s what wins championships.
  • Playoff Prep – Really, the situation the Penguins have found themselves in is ideal. What better way to prepare mentally and physically, deepening the team by getting lots of game experience to young call-ups than this? If the Penguins hold, they will be arguably in the best overall state of playoff readiness, and that’s a good thing.

The Penguins have addressed their situation without any illusions, approaching each game with fierce, stalwart determination, keeping the game “simple” and resolutely disciplined. Young guys brought up into the ranks, most apparent being Dustin Jeffrey, have stepped in and stepped up. There are no excuses on this team. It is a team composed of true grit, intestinal fortitude, all the lyrical, catchy phrases one can muster, but these guys are the real deal and teams who might have thought the Penguins are ripe for plunder are instead having to look in the mirror and acknowledge that it’s gut-check time.

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