When the St. Louis Blues captured their first Stanley Cup in team history this June, they certainly had no trouble lifting it.
On a roster with just two players smaller than 6-foot, the Blues took home the game’s ultimate prize thanks to a distinctly big, heavy playing style. And they aren’t the only ones trying to play this game. Their opponent in the Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins, similarly rode a hefty style and bulky roster to come within a win of the Cup.
But when the Penguins hosted the Blues on Wednesday night, it was a reminder that one size doesn’t fit all in the NHL.
While several teams in a copy-cat league have attempted to reshape their rosters to emulate the Blues and Bruins, the Penguins doubled down on the speed and skill game that helped them win back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017. Over the last 12 months and into the offseason, the Penguins added players like Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, who all fit the style the Penguins want to play.
“St. Louis has a certain identity to their team,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “The Penguins have a certain identity to our team.
“I think for me as a coach, it’s important to look at the core players and what their strengths are and build a style of play around your core. When you look at the way our team is built, we’re built on speed and skill. We’re trying to implement a game plan that takes advantage and plays to those strengths.”
So far, the newcomers seem to fit the mold the Penguins are seeking, while complimenting stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
McCann, a smooth skater who isn’t afraid to grip it and rip it from anywhere on the ice, entered Wednesday night tied for third on the team with 17 points and tied for second with nine goals. Kahun may be the smallest player on the Penguins roster at 5-11 and 175 pounds. But he’s also been among the most productive lately, tallying 13 points in the last 15 games.
And Tanev, who was once cut from his junior hockey team because he was too small, is now among the fastest players in the NHL. Nicknamed “Turbo” by his Penguins teammates, he’s a ball of energy and tightly coiled fast-twitch muscle. He’s arguably the Penguins’ best penalty killer, a defensively conscious two-way player and a menace on the forecheck.
Johnson a surprise scratch in new-look defense
The Penguins knew this week they’d be forced to restructure their blue line with Brian Dumoulin (ankle surgery) out for an extended period and Justin Schultz (lower body) still not completely ready to return.
But they got more bad news on Wednesday. Lefty Jack Johnson was scratched due to illness.
Johnson was playing on the top pairing with Kris Letang at practice on Tuesday. With the lefty out of the lineup, rookie John Marino moved up to the top pairing. Letang bumped over to his off side on the left, something he did earlier this year when Dumoulin was injured.
The second pairing featured Marcus Pettersson with Chad Ruhwedel. The third pairing allowed lefty Juuso Riikola to play on his natural left side for just the third time this year. He lined up with Zach Trotman.
Rust and Schultz remain out, Aston-Reese okay
Schultz and forward Bryan Rust were not in uniform for Wednesday’s game. Both skated in the morning and continue to make progress.
Schultz left practice on Nov. 20 and has not appeared in a game since. However, he rejoined practice in a non-contact jersey on Tuesday, a sign that he’s nearing a return. Rust, meanwhile, was initially injured when he slipped during a morning skate on Friday in Columbus. He’s been skating but has not participated in a full team practice yet.
Meanwhile, Zach Aston-Reese missed Tuesday’s practice with an illness. He was healthy enough to play on Wednesday.
Keeping it 100
The Penguins reached a season milestone this week… and not in the good way.
Entering Wednesday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues, the Penguins had tallied exactly 100 man-games lost to injury. Center Nick Bjugstad topped the list, missing his 18th game this season, followed by Rust (13).
Pittsburgh will continue to add to that total. Sidney Crosby, who has already missed 10 games, Dumoulin (four) and Patric Hornqvist (seven) are all out longer term.
The Blues have been significantly injured in their own right. They are also playing without their captain in Vladimir Tarasenko, who had shoulder surgery that could keep him out until the postseason. Alexander Steen has been dealing with a high ankle sprain since Nov. 6. Sammy Blais had wrist surgery and has been out since Nov. 19. And Oskar Sundqvist (lower-body injury) was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday.