It's been quite the season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After years of being a top heavy team, they made a commitment to improving their forward depth in the offseason - a forward depth that would be misused by then head coach Mike Johnston. But when Johnston couldn't hack it behind the bench, the Penguins turned to Wilkes-Barre head coach Mike Sullivan to take over, and Sullivan has guided the team to a playoff berth in a coaching performance worthy of the Jack Adams Award. When the Penguins needed him the most, he was the next man up, and it's been mentality the team has embodied throughout the season.
When the team struggled early in the season, it was Evgeni Malkin calling out the team after a 4-0 loss to New Jersey, and it was Evgeni Malkin who reeled off 8 goals and 5 assists in the next 7 games in response. As the Kris Letang and Ian Cole pairing struggled so mightily in the early going, it was the unlikely duo of Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy who provided a surprising level of play from the bottom pairing.
When the team was robbed of its forward depth, first with Pascal Dupuis needing to hang up his skates due to his history with blood clots, then with Beau Bennett, Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino, and Evgeni Malkin all going down concurrently with injuries, it was the AHL callups who fortified the ranks and grew into players who could make an impact at the NHL level. It earned Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Scott Wilson new two year deals, and Conor Sheary and Oskar Sundqvist have also offered solid contributions. Overwhelmed at first, the Penguins might finally have their bottom 6 answer in house after struggling to develop NHL caliber players for so long.
And while Evgeni Malkin helped pull the weight as Sidney Crosby struggled to find his game, it's Crosby who has helped pick up the scoring slack in Malkin's absence. Both Crosby's 12 game and 11 game scoring streaks extended into periods during which the team was without their star center. Since the All-Star Game, Malkin has missed 21 games; Crosby has scored 9 goals and 16 assists in the games he's missed while recording a point in 15 of those 21 contests. Since he went down for the rest of the regular season? 14 points in 11 games, 10 of which he registered at least one point.
Crosby hasn't been the only one to step up in Malkin's absence. Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin have elevated their play without their regular center, and Nick Bonino has elevated his game playing alongside the speedy wingers. In fact, the entire team has been playing at an extremely high level since Malkin went down against Columbus on March 11. They're 10-1-0 since he left the lineup, and they've posted an incredible 59.2 SACF% in his absence.
Kris Letang is 4th in the league averaging 26:53 per game TOI, and he's 20th in the league with 62 points. He's gotten stronger with each passing month, and he's continued to step his game up as injuries have hit the defensive corps with Ben Lovejoy, Olli Mattaa, and Brian Dumoulin missing varying amounts of time due to injury in recent weeks. And when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with his 2nd concussion of the year, it was Matt Murray stepping in with his first career shutout in the Pens 5-0 win over the Islanders yesterday. Murray now has a 0.933 SV% and 1.86 SV% on the season through 9 starts, and a number of those have been stepping up into the lineup with Fleury sidelined.
The Penguins have been able to battle through injuries before, notably under Dan Bylsma, but this has a much different feeling to it. While those teams would tread water, the Pens under Mike Sullivan seem to keep getting stronger, and deeper, when they need to replace someone in the lineup, like the entire team reaches down within and finds another gear they hadn't yet tapped. It's been an impressive display of depth and talent for a team that had been accused of being top heavy for years, and it's that resiliency that has this feeling like it could be a special season in Pittsburgh.