Setting a franchise record when you’re the Pittsburgh Penguins gets more difficult all the time. They’re a perennial powerhouse that has accomplished plenty in the past.
Yet there they were, winning their 13th straight game at home on Wednesday night against the rival Washington Capitals, setting the new benchmark after falling behind on three separate occasions.
If the number is surprising to anyone, it’s because in addition to leading the Eastern Conference by a landslide in points this season, they also lead the entire league in man-games lost due to injury.
The Penguins’ resilience was on full display as they battled the Caps for a 4-3 victory, overcoming early mistakes and using a patchwork roster to extend their awesome lead in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.
Serious injuries to the Penguins’ top four defensemen at various times over the first half of the season mean the group hasn’t yet been able to grow into a cohesive unit.
A recently healthy Kris Letang showed some serious rust on a breakout pass on the power play in the first period, which led to a shorthanded goal against. He fired the puck off-target between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and couldn’t stop Capitals winger Brooks Laich from coming in on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and opening the scoring.
Letang, though, is one of those defensemen who can quickly make up for mistakes in his own end through his offensive abilities. He tied the game before the halfway mark by joining an odd-man rush and bouncing the puck past Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth.
Jason Chimera gave the Capitals the lead again a few minutes later, but the Pens wasted no time in showing their opponents they weren’t going to sit back and lament their patchwork roster. Claimed on waivers from the New York Rangers earlier this month, journeyman Taylor Pyatt scored his first of the season on an incredible pass from rookie defenseman Olli Maatta to tie things up before the second intermission.
Alex Ovechkin netted his league-leading 34th goal of the year in the third, only to see Jussi Jokinen pull the Pens even again three minutes later to set up the dramatic finish.
It was Maatta who found the back of the net with his wrist shot after stepping in from the blue line, but Malkin did the dirty work, dangling around the Caps zone before dishing the puck to the open defenseman.
And there was Pyatt, parked right in front of Neuvirth to make sure the netminder had no chance at seeing the winning goal go in.
Resilience. Timely performances. Star power.
It’s a recipe the Penguins are using to remain one of the best teams in hockey. Even in a game featuring call-ups Zach Sill, Nick Drazenovic and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond filling out the bottom six, and blueliner Deryk Engelland playing out of position because of injuries to regulars James Neal, Beau Bennett, Pascal Dupuis, Chuck Kobasew and Joe Vitale. Fill-ins like Jayson Megna and Brian Gibbons are also out.
Nothing seems to deter the Penguins, especially at home.
They can always depend on their superstars, and when support is needed from elsewhere, others are always ready to step up and contribute.
Maatta is just 19 but was thrust into a prominent role early because of the battered blue line. He only seems to be getting better.
Brandon Sutter played on the wing for the first time in his NHL career, joining Crosby and Chris Kunitz on the top line.
Pyatt is a feel-good story if there ever was one, enjoying another positive swing in his up-and-down career while playing in Neal’s spot alongside Malkin and Jokinen.
Until they get fully healthy—something maybe the Olympic break will provide—the Penguins will need to keep showing the resilience and teamwork that was only made more obvious by looking across the ice at the Capitals.
Ovechkin leads the league in goals, but he’s a one-man show. The lack of balance, evidenced by the fact he has 20 more than any other teammate, is one reason the Caps are nearly 20 points behind the Pens in the division.
Pyatt, meanwhile, was the 23rd Penguin to score this season.
Resilience. Timely performances. Star power. Balance.
It’s a recipe the Pens have perfected.