Adversity breeds opportunity.
That’s a situation in which the Pens find themselves. Pittsburgh is dangerously thin down the middle with injuries to Evgeni Malkin (six-games missed, lower-body injury), Eric Fehr (six, lower-body) and Nick Bonino (13, hand). Combined with the losses of Beau Bennett (eight, upper-body) and Pascal Dupuis (29, IR), and Pittsburgh’s depth is being tested.
But those injuries have created a chance for a few younger players to push for jobs and minutes at the National Hockey League level.
“The door is open for us to show what we can do,” Bryan Rust said. “A few of the young guys can step in and make our mark. Hopefully, we’ll become regulars here one day.”
The Pens’ current bottom-6 is comprised of all players that began the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League: Rust, Oskar Sundqvist, Tom Kuhnhackl, Kevin Porter, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson.
Sundqvist, Kuhnhackl and Sheary all made their NHL debuts this season. Other than the veteran Porter, the remaining Pens’ prospects had a combined 15 games of NHL experience entering the year (14 games for Rust, 1 for Wilson).
“We’re fortunate because our organization has a lot of depth. All these guys that are coming up are good players in their own right,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, who is familiar with the players from his time as head coach of WBS at the beginning of the season. “They all have different skillsets, but they’re all pretty solid players that are knocking on the door.”
So far the bottom-6 have done their job by playing well defensively, playing physical and bringing momentum to the game.
“For bottom-6 guys, third-, fourth-line guys, we’re just trying to create as much momentum and energy for the team,” Rust said. “We’ll do it in the offensive zone, grinding the other team down and getting some scoring chances.”
The Rust-Sundqvist-Kuhnhackl line, which was a productive trio in WBS, has had a number of great shifts. They’ve played physical, tilted the ice in their favor and have created a lot of havoc around the net. Every shift against Florida on Monday they brought energy to the game.
“The dirty work is our job,” Kuhnhackl said. “Finishing our hits, battles in the corners, playing against their good players. Make them play defensively and I think we’ve been doing a good job the last couple of games.”
In fact, they’ve done everything, but score. Since Jan. 12 the only player on the bottom-6 to score a goal was Rust, a game-winner against Vancouver on Jan. 23.
“We’ve been playing well in the last couple games in the offensive zone and grinding it out,” Kuhnhackl said. “We’re creating scoring chances. We just have to find that last, finishing touch. Maybe we’ll get a bounce or two in the next couple of games.”
The coaching staff has given the team some pointers, including trying to elevate their shots, to help them get over the hump. Porter, Wilson, Kuhnhackl and Sundqvist are still fighting for their first goals of the season (and career in some cases).
But their lack of production certainly isn’t due to lack of effort.
“We’re getting a whole bunch of opportunities on tips, line rushes, plays below the goal line,” Rust said. “We’re getting all the chances we could hope for, but we’re all a little snake bitten right now. The bounces aren’t going our way. But it’s positive that we’re getting our chances.”
Porter, who has transitioned to center between Wilson and Sheary, is the rugged veteran of the group with 240 career NHL games and 29-career goals. He believes the team needs to be greedier with their shot selection.
“We need to shoot more. We’re passing up too many chances trying to make a play backdoor or with the D,” Porter said. “We need to take pucks to the net and shoot more. Get in front of the goalie’s eyes and we’ll start scoring some goals.”
The Pens as a team need to produce more goals, though their numbers aren’t the result of lack of scoring chances. The team just hasn’t converted their high quality chances, but they feel if they keep playing the right way they will rewarded for their work.
“You don’t want to change much if you’re playing hard and playing well,” Sheary said. “If you have the puck in their zone and are creating opportunities, that’s a good thing. We just need to bury a few.”