Center Matt Cullen has been productive since his return from injury.
By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Injuries have been a central theme of the Penguins season, a sentence that seemingly applies every year, just swap out names and maladies.
In 2016-17, it has been Sidney Crosby’s concussion and Matt Murray’s thumb early. Kris Letang on four separate occasions. The seemingly daily demolition of the team’s other defensemen. Two concussions for Patric Hornqvist, one apiece for Justin Schultz and Carl Hagelin, among many other bumps, bruises, strains and sprains.
Yet through all the injuries, one thing has remained fairly consistent: When guys return to the lineup, they produce.
No rushing guys back before they’re ready and healthy enough to produce. No struggling to find rhythm or get that same feeling back.
Instead, returns have been seamless.
“I think it just goes back to the culture that we try to keep around here,” Murray said. “That’s to always try and be at your best.”
Such a culture, of course, was established by coach Mike Sullivan last season, but he — predictably — wants little credit for it.
Too bad, because there have been many, and plenty of examples lately. In no particular order:
• Conor Sheary missed 13 games with an upper-body injury. He has produced three goals and 12 points since coming back.
• Matt Cullen has a pair of assists in two games since returning from a three-game absence due to a lower-body injury.
• Hornqvist scored Sunday and has two points in two games since returning from a concussion. Hornqvist missed six games in November and produced points in four of five (one goal, five total points) games after returning.
• Don’t forget Evgeni Malkin’s 11 goals and 18 points after missing seven games around the All-Star break with a lower-body injury. Might be scary to think what he might do once his shoulder heals and stops thinking he’s Ian Cole.
• Also don’t forget Crosby’s outburst with goals in five goals in his first six games — eight total — after his beginning-of-the-season concussion. Or try this, 26 goals in his first 31 contests.
• Murray won nine of his first 11 decisions after getting hurt at the World Cup of Hockey, posting a 1.91 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.
• Even Letang, who said earlier this season that his multitude of injuries has been frustrating because it has limited his ability to “build his game,” scored in nine of 11 (11 total points) games before his most recent injury.
What would the head coach attribute this to?
“It’s a number of things” Sullivan said. “I think our medical staff does a real good job and our strength and conditioning staff does a good job preparing these guys to get back in the lineup. I give the players themselves a lot of credit for putting the work in and the commitment level that it takes to be ready when they go back in the lineup.
“I think sometimes they give us a burst of energy and some enthusiasm because they’ve been away from the game a little bit. They bring a fresh set of legs and energy to their game when they come back in.”
It’s not atypical for injured players in any sport, let alone the NHL, but Sullivan feels strongly about including those who are injured.
That’s why you see Trevor Daley watching practice like he did the other day. Or Carl Hagelin on crutches on his way past the dressing room.
Guys stay involved. They rehab. They stay engaged and keep up to speed with what’s happening around the team.
“We want them to be part of that learning process,” Sullivan said. “They are interacting with their teammates. They are sitting in meetings.
“By sitting in those meetings and watching the video of some of the other players on our team or our opponents or whatever the theme is on that particular day, it’s a great learning opportunity for everybody, regardless of whether you’re in the lineup or you’re not.”
Like Murray said, it’s a culture that has been cultivated, even if the coach doesn’t want credit.
It’s an environment that breeds success.
Or, as Sullivan might say, something that helps the Penguins win and makes them harder to play against.
“You don’t want to dip your toes in and warm your way to the game, because then you’re going to get burned,” Murray said. “As soon as you sit back just a little bit, guys are flying by you or pucks are flying by you, whatever it may be.
“I think it’s just keeping that mindset. You kind of have to jump in head first when you’re coming back.”
Jason Mackey: email@example.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
Who: Penguins at Sabres
When, where: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Key Bank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.
Noteworthy: The Penguins need to win four of their final six away games to reach 20 road wins for a 10th consecutive season. … Buffalo had won just three of 13 entering Monday’s game at Detroit. … The Penguins are 7-2-1 so far in March. Jake Guentzel led all rookies with 10 points (four goals) in the month entering Monday’s games. … Odd special teams for the Sabres: Their power play was second at 23.3 percent before Monday; their penalty kill was 29th at 76.4. … Sidney Crosby had nine shots on goal when these teams met last, a 4-3 Penguins win March 5 where they wiped out a three-goal deficit. Since then, Crosby has averaged 5.3 shots on goal per game and scored six times in 11 games.
Did you know? In the past 184 regular season games between these teams, they’ve each scored 596 goals, excluding shootouts. (Credit: Bob Grove)
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