Penguins weathering early-season injuries, absences

Grace Heidinger | Staff Writer | Fans depart from PPG Paints Arena following Pittsburgh’s 5-2 victory over Chicago on Oct. 16.

28Grace Heidinger | Staff Writer

Oct. 28, 2021

Despite being without arguably two of the best players in the entire National Hockey League (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), the Pittsburgh Penguins have held their ground and managed to win games without top talent.

Although the Penguins fell, 5-1, to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, Pittsburgh is currently 3-1-2 in the early part of the season.

In the offseason, Crosby underwent wrist surgery, while Malkin is sidelined by knee surgery.

Malkin will miss at least the first two months of the regular season. Crosby is getting closer to making his season debut after recently joining team practices, but an exact return date has not been announced. The injuries didn’t stop there.

Just as Mike Matheson returned to the lineup following a brief absence, Bryan Rust was placed on injured reserve after just two games.

Roster changes and new faces finding their way into the Penguins’ locker room, responses necessitated by injuries and Covid-19 protocols, have become daily occurrences.

In a season that is not even three weeks old, the Penguins have already (temporarily) lost Jake Guentzel, Zach Aston-Reese, Tristan Jarry, Jeff Carter and Kris Letang at some point due to the league’s Covid-19 procedures.

In a lineup with new faces and constant shuffling, it was hard to tell what the Penguins could produce. They were immediately put to the test during their season opener against Tampa Bay, the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

A dominant, all-around team effort helped Pittsburgh leave Tampa with a 6-2 victory. The connection between old and new players was instrumental in the victory.

The first two goals of the win were scored by Danton Heinen and Brian Boyle, both of whom were signed by Pittsburgh in the offseason.

This would become the new normal for Pittsburgh. With constant changes to the lineup, healthy players are showing up and competing.

Head Coach Mike Sullivan has helped guide the ship and get past these adversities. Despite all the players lost to injury or Covid-19 protocol, he’s continued to produce lines of players that are eager to make plays and score goals.

In fact, Pittsburgh has scored 24 goals in its first six games. In this period, 14 different Penguins have scored. That’s a testament to Sullivan, who is making the best of a bad situation.

At the other end of the ice, goaltender Tristan Jarry has bounced back just months after a poor playoff performance had seemingly earned him a ticket out of town. Jarry limited upstart teams like the Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs to two goals and one goal, respectively.

After the season-opening victory over Tampa, the Penguins earned at least one point in each of their next four games.

In Pittsburgh’s home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, Drew O’Connor scored his first NHL goal, while newcomer Brock McGinn also found the back of the net. In the first regular-season game at PPG Paints Arena with full capacity since March 8, 2020, the Penguins won by a 5-2 tally.

In addition to overtime/shootout losses against the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh trounced Toronto by a 7-1 mark on Saturday.

Eleven different Penguins recorded a goal or an assist in the victory. Matheson and Marcus Pettersson scored their first goals of the season, while O’Connor registered the first multi-goal game of his professional career.

Tuesday’s loss to Tampa Bay was a setback, but it only gives the Penguins more motivation going forward.

With players set to return from Covid-19 protocol and Crosby nearing a return from injury, the Penguins will continue to fight through adversity until they can get as close to full strength as possible.

The team is also the beneficiary of a generously crafted schedule. Thursday’s game against the Calgary Flames will be the fifth in an eight-game homestand for the Penguins.

It’s not often that homestands last that long, but it’s certainly an advantage for Pittsburgh as it looks to continue to earn points.