For the Pittsburgh Penguins: Seeing is Believing
What Mike Sullivan’s bunch has demonstrated thus far isn’t definitive, but it’s been revealing.
Defenseman Justin Schultz hasn’t been in the lineup since Dec. 17 due to a lower-body injury, but he’s been keeping close watch on the Penguins ever since.
And he’s liked what he’s seen.
“It’s so fun to watch them,” Schultz observed this week prior to Game No. 50 on Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the Penguins’ final game before the NHL’s All-Star break. “They work so hard. They’re so hard to play against. We play with speed and it’s so tough for teams to defend us. Our guys are doing a great job defending, as well.
“It looks like we’re just a tough team to play against right now and playing to our identity.”
That’s the story of the first 50 games.
More than the emergence of Tristian Jarry or John Marino, more than the resiliency the Penguins have repeatedly displayed in the face of significant injuries to Schultz and other key contributors, captain Sidney Crosby among them; more than the resolve they’ve adopted when facing third-period deficits or a constricted schedule, the team’s metamorphosis from entitled to engaged is the most significant development for head coach Mike Sullivan’s team to date.
When the players start sounding like Sullivan while emphasizing attention to detail and being hard to play against – Schultz is far from alone in that regard, he was merely one of the latest – you know they’re bought in and that they’re all-in.
The question now is where can such an identity take the Penguins?
Games against the defending-Eastern Conference champions, the Bruins, on Jan, 16 in Boston and last Sunday afternoon on at PPG Paints Arena, offered a potential preview of what the Pens might be in for this spring for those willing to project that far ahead.
Sullivan wasn’t among them.
“We’ve had a couple of different lineups against them,” Sullivan contended on Sunday. “We haven’t even thought in terms of big-picture matchups, or whatever.
“When we have a healthy lineup maybe we’ll start thinking about that.”
But the Pens had Crosby for all three meetings with the Bruins this season (including the first such confrontation on Nov. 4) while going 1-2 in a succession of games that could have gone either way.
The Bruins weren’t whole for all three, either, and neither team might be if they meet again in the postseason.
For now, such a series looks like it would be a toss-up, as well as one the hockey world ought to be longing to see stretched to seven games.
But what about the rest of the Eastern Conference?
What about the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin (when last seen he was scoring eight goals in three games and passing Mario Lemieux on the way to a tie for ninth place on the NHL’s all-time goals scored list with 692)?
What abut perennial contender/under-achiever Tampa Bay (goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL with 24 wins; what if the Lightning actually exceed expectations for a change)?
What about the Columbus Blue Jackets, 16-2-4 in their last 22 games, and rookie sensation Elvis Merzlikins in net (Elvis has apparently just entered the building)?
What about that team nobody’s talking about yet but will be eventually (there’s one of those almost every postseason)?
What about the way the deck may be destined to re-shuffle at the trade deadline on Feb. 24?
There remains much to be seen.
But if we hadn’t already seen what we have from the Penguins, what Schultz saw and was so impressed by while convalescing, there wouldn’t be much point in looking ahead.
The Penguins have come far enough that they’re in the conversation.
That’s a long way from where they were last April.