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Youth providing spark to Pens' lineup

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

The Penguins were stuck in a slump in the 2015-16 season. The club crawled to a 15-10-3 record, but the team look sluggish and lethargic on ice. A change was needed. A new energy was needed. 

General manager Jim Rutherford found that energy with a new head coach (Mike Sullivan) and several trades (Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz). But those weren't the only changes that ignited the club. It was the contributions from the younger players in the system: Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Murray. 

The rest of that season, as they say, is history. The Penguins would rally to win the club's fourth Stanley Cup title and the first of back-to-back championships. 

That history seems to be repeating itself in the early part of the 2019-20 season. A rash of injuries to forwards Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad and Rust have forced another round of callups from within the system. 

And those callups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - Sam Lafferty, Adam Johnson and Joseph Blandisi - have injected a shot of energy into the roster. 

"When you come up, you're hungry," Blandisi said. "I like that line I was playing with. We played together for a couple games in Wilkes as well. We all have the same mindset. We all know where each other likes to be. That chemistry is going to give other teams a hard time."

Minnesota and Winnipeg certainly had a hard time as the trio exploded over the weekend for five goals, nine points in a two-game span in back-to-back road victories. It also saw both Lafferty and Johnson netting their first-career NHL goals. 

"Any time a guy comes up they're eager and excited for the opportunity," captain Sidney Crosby said. "The fact that they were able to produce and chip in right away is huge."

It's amazing to think that the Pens have been without players like Malkin, Galchenyuk and Rust, yet have been able to score seven goals on three occasions in the last five games. And the biggest reason has been the spark of the bottom-6 guys. 

"They work so hard out there and do the right things. They give everyone energy when they play the right way," said winger Patric Hornqvist, who knows a thing or two about bringing energy to a team. "They really stepped up and scored some big goals for us." 

Rutherford set out to insert more enthusiasm and energy into the lineup this summer - which is why he acquired Galchenyuk, Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun. Those three have delivered on their end. But now, the Penguins are getting more of that adrenaline from down on the farm. 

And the combination of trades and young players coming up through from WBS is reminiscent of that 2015-16 season. 

"It's very similar," said Schultz, who saw firsthand the impact in 2016. "It shows the depth we have in our organization. These guys can come in right away and play huge roles for us when we need them." 

Those young players in 2016 gave the veterans a big push from behind to get them over the finish line. And right now, the current young crop is again pushing the team to success. 

"It's pretty impressive coming into their first games and producing like they are goes to show their work ethic," Schultz said. "They're the hardest workers. They're skilled, they're fast, they're hungry." 

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