PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins believe they understand what is necessary to overcome their lengthy list of injuries and become the first NHL team in 19 years to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
“It is going to take a village to get it done,” Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley said.
The “next man up” approach was on display again Sunday when the Penguins rode their third- and fourth-line players to a 7-0 win against the Ottawa Senators that puts the Penguins one win short of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the second consecutive season. The Penguins can win the Eastern Conference final with a victory in Game 6 on Tuesday in Ottawa.
Third-line winger Carter Rowney, who finally made the NHL this season at age 27 (he turned 28 on May 10), contributed three assists and was on the ice for four Penguins’ goals. Linemate Bryan Rust, returning to the lineup after missing two games with an injury, chipped in a goal and an assist. Center Nick Bonino had two assists.
Role player Scott Wilson and fourth-line center Matt Cullen also scored. The Penguins’ best offensive show of the series was carried out by players who don’t usually have starring roles in that production.
“A big part of our success last year was getting all four lines going,” Cullen said. “…spending time in the offensive zone and grinding.”
The need for contributions from up and down the lineup is more critical this year because injuries have piled up. No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang is gone for the season, and Justin Schultz and Patric Hornqvist are key players still out. The Penguins have had a flowing stream of players moving in and out of the lineup. They have used eight different defensemen and 15 different forwards
Last year, the talk about the Penguins during the playoffs was about their incredible speed.
This year, it’s been more about their resiliency, and their ability to keep adding guys to the lineup who find ways to contribute.
“I’ve said all along here it takes more than 12 forwards, six defensemen, you know, to win at this time of year,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’ve got a full complement of players. It seems like with the injuries we’ve had, we’ve had to utilize all of them to help us win games. When these guys step into the lineup, they do a great job for us.”
During the Penguins’ run last season, the spotlight was often on the big-name players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and especially Phil Kessel, who had a memorable playoff.
Malkin had three assists Sunday and leads all NHL playoff scorers with 23 points. Sidney Crosby had a goal and a dandy assist to set up Kessel for a goal. They are still difference-makers.
But this year’s run seems more like a collective effort, with more guys finding the spotlight.
Rowney spent four years playing college hockey at North Dakota and even had time in the ECHL before spending two full seasons and part of this season in the American Hockey League.
“He’s worked really hard to get here,” Daley said. “It’s a great opportunity and he’s running with it.”
Sullivan hasn’t used Rowney in every playoff game. To him, these playoffs have required a different approach. “You want to make sure you’re ready because you don’t want to let your teammates down,” Rowney said.
Counting the regular season and playoffs, Rowney had four assists in his first 38 NHL games. The fact he was able to produce three in one game is symbolic of how the Penguins’ role players are raising their performance levels.
“It makes our team so much more difficult to play against when we get the production throughout our lineup like we did,” Sullivan said. “We had seven different goal-scorers.”
The Penguins’ identity is still Crosby and Malkin. But the Penguins are far scarier when they are getting goals from players like Wilson and Cullen.
“It can’t be Sid and Geno all the time, although it usually is,” Daley said. “But when they get a little support from others (Malkin and Crosby) are even better.”