PITTSBURGH — After two periods on Thursday night it looked as if the San Jose Sharks were going to cruise to a win against a banged up Pittsburgh Penguins team in a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup final.
At that point the Penguins were down on the scoreboard, their defensemen were dropping like drummers from Spinal Tap, and the Sharks were in complete control of the game by pretty much every objective measure.
But hockey is a crazy sport, and sometimes on any given night you have to expect the unexpected because in a league where almost every game is decided by a single goal, there is a very fine line between winning and losing.
In the end, “unexpected” would probably be a good way to describe the Penguins’ come-from-behind 3-2 win given the circumstances.
It was made possible thanks to a massive third period rally that saw them score three goals in seven minutes while playing nearly half of the game with only four defensemen against one of the best teams in the league.
Even before their defensemen started exiting on Thursday, the Penguins were already dealing with a handful of significant injuries entering the game.
Their captain, Sidney Crosby, is still sidelined with a concussion. Matt Murray, the goalie the backstopped them to a championship in June, has yet to play this season due to a hand injury at the World Cup. Then on Tuesday they lost their best defenseman — and arguably their most important player — when Kris Letang had to exit with an upper body injury. Conor Sheary, a top-line winger alongside Crosby in last year’s playoffs and the Game 2 overtime hero, was also injured in that game when he took a stick to the eye.
Things started to border on the absurd late in the third period when Ian Cole was hit up high by shot and was clearly shaken up as he slowly skated to the bench. They were on the verge of having to find a forward that could moonlight as a defenseman.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked after the game what the contingency plan was for being down to only three defensemen if it came to that. He joked that maybe they will have to start keeping assistant coach Jacques Martin’s equipment behind the bench.
But what stands out about this win for Pittsburgh was the fact they did it with such a ridiculously shorthanded roster. Already without Letang, that put a ton of pressure on the four players remaining on the blue line: Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin, Cole and Justin Schultz. All four of them ended the game playing more than 21 minutes.
Even putting aside the logistical nightmare of having to play with only four defensemen for that amount of time, it’s also a pretty big matchup problem against a team as good and deep as San Jose. Let’s be honest, for as good as those players have been for the Penguins, none of them are what most would describe as top defensemen. There is not a Kris Letang in that group.
But in a lot of ways it was symbolic of the way the Penguns’ Stanley Cup defense came together. A group of players that were tossed aside by other team and was viewed for much of the season (and even into the playoffs) as the biggest question mark on the team. But they always found a way to come together and make it the whole thing work.
They did it again on Thursday.
“I thought they all did a terrific job,” said Sullivan.
“Anytime you go down two defenseman that early in a game, it’s tough. It puts a lot of pressure on the players that are still in there, and I thought they did a great job simplifying game.”
Along with their ability to simplify the game (something that kind of goes against what the Penguins normally ask their defenseman to do in such an aggressive, up-tempo system), Sullivan also credited the Penguins forwards in the third period for playing a more north-south game and not forcing them to spend as much time in their own zone.
When the second period game to a close the Penguins were down a pair of goals and were getting badly outshot by a 27-10 margin, including 17-4 in the second period alone. It was total domination from the San Jose side.
All it took to get things rolling in the other direction was a goal from Malkin and a couple of greasy goals around the front of the net, including the winner from Hornqvist.
“I don’t know if it’s a win the way we drew it up,” said Sullivan. “But I said to the guys after the second period, you can win ugly in this league. You don’t get style points at the end of the night. It’s about finding ways to win, and when you play an 82-game schedule you’re going to have these nights. I think that is resilience. That is toughness. That is a competitive spirit that we need to continue to develop, and I know this group has it.”