With returns of several injured forwards nearing, Penguins insist they’ll stick to adopted style
Two of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top nine forwards are close to returning to action after extended absences because of injury. Two others in that category inched closer to returns of their own.
It’s a welcomed development for a team whose forward lineup has been depleted over the first three weeks of the season. So it falls under the category of “things only a veteran NHL coach would say” that Mike Sullivan suggested the Penguins would face “a challenge” in regards to the imminent returns of Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad and eventual returns of Evgeni Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk.
“Every team goes through that challenge when they get injured players back into the lineup, especially key players,” Sullivan said Monday. “That’s part of human nature, I think. And so our challenge as a group is to make sure that we bring the same mindset that we have right now, the same commitment level, the attention to detail and all of the things that these guys have bought into that is allowing us to enjoy the success that we have over the last couple of weeks.”
The Penguins have won five of their past six games — all without that quartet of forwards who combine for $22.9 million of salary-cap space this season.
They have done it by way of strong play from an abundance of younger players who might not share the talent level of a Malkin or the pedigree of a Galchenyuk but who have committed to a playing style that makes coaches such as Sullivan happy — a style that often can lead to wins in the NHL.
The danger, as Sullivan sees it, is the return of a two-time NHL scoring champion in Malkin or a No. 19 overall draft pick in Bjugstad could allow the Penguins to slip into poor habits because they — even subconsciously — believe that some world-class players will use their skill to bail them out.
“This team has provided itself a lot of evidence that if we play the game a certain way that we’re as competitive a team as there is in the league,” Sullivan said, “and that’s the way we look at it as a coaching staff. I think with some of the adversity that we’ve faced early on through the injuries that we’ve had to endure has given us an opportunity to galvanize an identity right away. And now our challenge is to play to that identity night in and night out.”
Of the five forwards who did not play in the Penguins’ most recent game Saturday, only Jared McCann appears destined to play when a three-game road trip begins Tuesday at the Florida Panthers. McCann has been dealing with a nagging lower-body injury, but he was a full-contact participant in practice Monday.
Rust and Bjugstad began the session wearing no-contact jerseys, though by the end of the practice at least Bjugstad had moved on to full contact for what was admittedly a light-contact session. Both will join the Penguins on their trip that includes stops at Tampa Bay on Wednesday and Dallas on Saturday.
Malkin (lower-body) and Galchenyuk (lower-body) skated prior to practice — a sign of progress — but will not accompany the Penguins on their trip.
With his designation on the long-term injured reserve list, Rust is ineligible to return to game action until Saturday. Bjugstad has no such formal restrictions, but he said he was “not sure” of a timeline to return and described himself as “day by day.”
Bjugstad has not played since Oct. 5 because of an undisclosed injury but is back at practice sooner than was initially expected.
“I don’t like watching (in lieu of playing),” Bjugstad said, “but I did enjoy watching (teammates) play really well. It’s been fun to watch.”
Rust suffered a hand injury blocking a shot, of all things, late during the final preseason game, a move he called more instinctive than wise.
“Obviously, watching games, guys are doing awesome things,” Rust said. “The guys who have come up are playing awesome and doing great, and I think just when I get back and when all our guys get back, we’ll try to hop right in there and keep up the same things.”
Rust spoke like someone who would make his coach proud.
“We really like the way the team is playing right now,” Sullivan said, “and our challenge is to continue to bring that necessary mindset and commitment to playing the game the right way.”
Notes: On the blue line, top-pairing defenseman Brian Dumoulin did not practice Monday due to a lower-body injury that kept him out of Saturday’s game against Vegas. He was placed on the injured list retroactive to Friday, which means the earliest he could return to the lineup is Saturday in Dallas. Depth defenseman Zach Trotman, though, returned to practice Monday after not playing yet this season because of a sports hernia. Afterwards, he was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a conditioning assigment.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .