PITTSBURGH — They may not be their biggest stars, but the Pittsburgh Penguins got two of their most important players back on Tuesday night with the returns of defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino.
It is not a coincidence that their presence helped spark one of the Penguins’ best overall games in weeks to help them snap what had been a six-game losing streak with a 7-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.
It did not take them very long to make an impact, either.
Marino opened the scoring for the Penguins with a goal just 48 seconds into the first period.
That was followed by Dumoulin making a smooth play in the offensive zone to set up Conor Sheary less than a minute later to give the Penguins a two-goal lead they would never come close to surrendering.
Bryan Rust also recorded a hat trick in the win, while Evgeni Malkin had four assists.
Sidney Crosby also recorded the 800th assist of his career.
But the big picture news here for the Penguins is what the return of two of their top blue-liners could mean.
Their absence put a significant dent in the lineup (Dumoulin had been sidelined since the end of November, while Marino had missed about a month) the past few weeks. It not only took away two of their best defensive players, but it also put them into a situation where the remaining blue-liners had to take on bigger roles than they’re accustomed to playing. Jack Johnson had to move up to the top pairing alongside Kris Letang, Justin Schultz had to play on the second pairing, and their third-pairing was a revolving door of extra defensemen.
On Tuesday, everything was back to the way they intended it to be: Letang with Dumoulin, Marino with Marcus Petterson, and Schultz and Johnson on the third pairing.
The other underrated part of their presence is what they can do for the offense due to their ability to get the puck out of the defensive zones and feed the Penguins transition game. That element had also been lacking in recent games.
“They’re such good players on both side of the puck,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan of Marino and Dumoulin. “They defend so well, they have puck poise and good breakouts, and they help us create some balance throughout our pairs. It just makes us a better team when they’re in the lineup.”
Marino, one of the league’s top rookies this season, now has six goals and 26 points in 52 games this season thanks to his early tally on Tuesday.
“Honestly just tried to get it to the net,” said Marino when asked about his goal. “I saw [Rust] had a good screen in front and luckily it went in.”
Along with the goal he also broke up a 3-on-1 rush in the second period, nearly scored a second goal later in the period, and was at times a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone. The Penguins acquired him from the Edmonton Oilers for a sixth-round draft pick over the summer and it has helped completely transform their defense.
Even with their recent slide the Penguins are still in a pretty good spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their win on Tuesday gives them a seven-point cushion over the non-playoff teams, while they are also four points ahead of the Wild Card teams. They are also just one point back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division. They still sit four points back of the Capitals for the top spot, which could be difficult to make up, but they do have two head-to-head meetings (both in Pittsburgh) remaining.
“Honestly, every team goes through this,” said Marino of the team’s recent slump. “We happen to be going through right now, but other teams go through it. There’s a lot of veteran players here that know to stay calm. We have the right guys in the room to do what we want. As long as we just stick to our game we will be fine.”
Related: Penguins get two important players back with John Marino, Brian Dumoulin
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.