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With Jets matchup looming, Penguins stick to 'just play' philosophy

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 6:42 p.m.
The Penguins' Trevor Daley jumps over the Jets' Dustin Byfuglien and Evgeni Malkin in the third period Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Trevor Daley jumps over the Jets' Dustin Byfuglien and Evgeni Malkin in the third period Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

The last time the Penguins played the Winnipeg Jets, Justin Schultz got squished into the boards by 265-pound defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and missed the next three games with a concussion.

Schultz thinks he got off easy.

“It was just a hockey play,” Schultz said. “I don't think it was cheap at all or anything. It was just tough luck. My head bounced off the glass. I was lucky enough not to miss too much time.”

When a 10-day absence due to a head injury passes as a best-case scenario, it's safe to say the Jets put the Penguins through a meat grinder in the previous meeting in mid-February.

Schultz wasn't the only injured party. Olli Maatta is still out with a hand injury suffered on an open-ice hit by 6-foot-5 center Adam Lowry in the second period. Turning the tables later in the game, Evgeni Malkin lit up Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler with a high, hard hit of his own.

There's no reason to believe it won't be a physical affair again when the Penguins open a four-game Western Canadian road trip Wednesday night in Winnipeg.

The Penguins have an organizational philosophy for dealing with situations such as these. It was articulated in a two-word phrase that appeared on the team's locker room T-shirts during their run to the Stanley Cup last season.

Just play.

Coach Mike Sullivan explains in greater detail:

“The most important thing is we don't try to play somebody else's game, that we play ours,” he said. “We have to make sure we stay focused and we fight through the traffic and we fight through the physical play and we make sure we keep our eye on the right ball, and that's making sure we win the game.”

In the past, even as recently as last season, the Penguins might try to gear up for matchups with particularly physical teams by fortifying their lineup with hard-nosed players. This year, though, 228-pound heavyweight Tom Sestito has been in the AHL since Dec. 3, and scrappy defenseman Steve Oleksy was sent to Toronto at the trade deadline.

The Penguins won't fight fire with fire. They'll try to make overly rambunctious opponents pay by scoring on them.

“If teams want to take liberties and go out of their way to run a guy over, you're going to get a power play,” Schultz said. “I think most teams these days are using that, taking advantage of that. It hurts more on the scoreboard than getting hit sometimes.”

Trying to do otherwise, at least at this stage of the game, would do more harm than good, winger Scott Wilson theorized.

“If you start changing things, that's when you start second-guessing yourself and making stupid plays and turning pucks over in certain situations,” he said. “With a team like that, if you stick to your game and you're confident, you're going to get chances because they're kind of running all over. You try not to change. Injuries are more a fluke, I find. You can't be changing, or it will throw off your game.”

Wednesday night's game with Winnipeg probably won't be the last time the Penguins face a stern physical test. Potential playoff series with Columbus or Washington loom.

If those matchups materialize, the Penguins already know what their plan will be.

They'll just play.

“We play to our strengths, and one of our strengths is speed and willingness to hang onto pucks and keep coming after them line after line,” winger Chris Kunitz said. “It's something we haven't done for 60 minutes for a while, but it's something we're trying to build for playoffs. That's what our organization has been built to throw at teams. Everyone's got their own ideas of how teams should be built and run. We've had success with that. We're going to stick with it.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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