Ron Cook: Outlook for Penguins improving, with a lot left to prove
March 1, 2016 12:34 AM
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby gets his stick on a shot by the Arizona Coyotes' Jordan Martinook in the second period Monday at Consol Energy Center.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
To paraphrase the great Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale in the iconic sports movie “Hoosiers,” Jim Rutherford’s hockey club is on the ice.
“We’re a team that’s a lot better,” Rutherford was saying Monday after the NHL trade deadline passed.
This was before the Penguins put a 6-0 licking on the depleted Arizona Coyotes, who had lost five consecutive games even before they traded one of their top players earlier in the day. Not that Mikkel Boedker would have made much difference at Consol Energy Center. Patric Hornqvist torched the Coyotes with a hat trick, his first in the NHL, and Marc-Andre Fleury pitched a shutout, his fifth of the season and 43rd overall. The Penguins even got a power-play goal from Hornqvist, ending a 1-for-27 slide.
It was impressive, from start to finish.
But pardon me if I contain my excitement just a bit. It’s one thing to beat the Coyotes and roll the Winnipeg Jets, as the Penguins did Saturday at home. Let’s see how they do tonight in Washington against the Capitals, who are running away with the Presidents’ Trophy. Let’s see how they do Thursday night at home against the New York Rangers, who are 11-1-1 against them in the past 13 games with a 40-18 edge in goals. The Penguins will play the Capitals and Rangers three times each in their final 21 games. Let’s see how they do in those games.
“I think we’re a dangerous team,” Kris Letang insisted.
Rutherford didn’t do much for it Monday, trading unhappy winger Sergei Plotnikov and adding depth center Dustin Jeffrey. He made more significant moves when he traded for defenseman Justin Schultz Saturday, Carl Hagelin Jan. 16 and Trevor Daley Dec. 14. The Penguins will be fortunate if Schultz turns out to be as valuable as the quick-skating Hagelin and the puck-moving Daley.
“Our team, earlier in the season, looked slow at times,” Rutherford said. “We needed to fix our team speed. We’re a team that’s a lot faster now. We have more balance.”
Rutherford said he would have loved to have traded for a big, rugged, body-moving defenseman — “Everybody can use that type of defenseman” — but quickly added he didn’t believe one was available, at least not for what he had to offer in assets and with little salary-cap room. He said he had no interest in trading one of his top young players — Derrick Pouliot, Daniel Sprong or Matt Murray, who could get the start in goal tonight against the Capitals. “I don’t think it made sense,” Rutherford said. “It’s time for this team to get some of the younger players in the lineup.” As for the tight salary cap, he said, “We would have had to get creative.”
Rutherford kept coming back to team speed. Mike Sullivan believes in it, demands it, actually. Sullivan said he likes what Rutherford has built.
“We believe in this group. We’ve got a nice mix of veteran players and young, enthusiastic guys. I think we’ve got a lot of team speed. We have some flexibility in a lot of our positions. We’re strong in the goaltending position. We really like this group and we believe in them.”
Rutherford figures the return Saturday of Evgeni Malkin against the Jets after 10 games out of the lineup was better for the Penguins than any player he could have added at the trade deadline. Malkin didn’t have a point against the Jets but was much more active against the Coyotes. He set up Hornqvist’s power-play goal with a terrific pass.
Rutherford also pointed out that Sidney Crosby again is playing like the best player in the world. “Not only is he producing, his overall game in all areas of the rink has been really, really good, maybe as good as it’s ever been in his career.” Crosby had three assists against the Coyotes and was a plus-4, as were linemates Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz and defensemen Letang and Olli Maatta.
Throw in young players Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary. They have brought the energy and enthusiasm that Sullivan mentioned. “They’ve held their own,” Rutherford said. “For a team that isn’t supposed to have many young players, those guys have done pretty well.”
Letang said the Penguins are ready to take on the world.
OK, at least the Capitals and the Rangers.
“Anytime you have guys like Sid and [Malkin] in your lineup and a goalie like [Fleury], you give yourself a chance to win,” Letang said. “I like our team. I like it a lot.”
I’ll like it a lot more once the Penguins show they can stand up to the Capitals and Rangers.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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