Hindsight is 2020. And while I’m not sure anyone could have been prepared for what this calendar year has brought, there certainly has been plenty to reflect on and discover.
Sports have always served as a refuge in times of despair, an escape from the issues plaguing the world. But as can be said over and over, this year has just been different. After being paused for months on end, the sanctuary of professional sports is finally reopening.
In the NHL, the plan is for 24 teams to return to play for a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup. After a short training camp, the teams will be immediately thrust into the most intense postseason in all of professional sports. Training camp, usually the foundation for building a team’s identity, will now serve as a rebuild. There simply won’t be time to discover their game; those who can rediscover it the quickest may just last the longest.
Since it’s been over three months since they’ve played a game, let’s quickly try to rediscover the 2019.20 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Their story actually began in April of 2019. A first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders sent the Penguins home for their longest offseason since 2006, the last time they didn’t make the playoffs at all (aside from unavoidable missed time due to a league-wide lockout in 2012). It would be 170 days between meaningful games, but the long road back to playing hockey was nothing compared to the road that lie ahead.
Before this season even began, four players, including Captain Sidney Crosby, were injured. If you’ve felt like the last few months have been Groundhog Day, this is actually when it began in Pittsburgh.
Less than a week into the season, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist were also injured. A few weeks later, Brian Dumoulin was placed on IR. And this was just October.
With injuries decimating the roster, Crosby played through pain through the first quarter of the season despite being hurt in training camp. But after leaving early in a shootout win against Chicago on November 9, the consummate leader decided, along with the training staff, that core-muscle surgery was necessary. It would be 66 days before Crosby played again, having missed 28 games.
As November came to an end, and after a short stint on IR already, Dumoulin had a new injury, this one requiring ankle surgery. The defensive stalwart would be out until March. Justin Schultz joined him for the first of his two stretches on IR as well, causing him to miss a collective 2 months of the season.
Like I said, Groundhog Day.
The injuries were mounting, and so was the hill they would have to climb, sitting fifth in the Metropolitan Division at the start of December. Yet just when the hockey world was writing off Pittsburgh, the Pens started writing their own narrative. The theme originated in their ability to recover quickly from difficulties, also known as resilience. They found that definition, their identity, in the month of December, winning 10 out of 12 games.
Video: PIT@EDM: McCann forces turnover, buries backhander
Albeit, just hours before ringing in the New Year, many thought the clock may have finally struck midnight on the Penguins. Recently named All-Star Jake Guentzel underwent major shoulder surgery that would likely end his season. But as we’ve learned, 2020 has had entirely different plans for all of us, and the ability for Guentzel to resume his season is one small victory in a year defined by them.
After a season full of literal breaks, the Penguins got their first figurative one on January 14, when Crosby rejoined the lineup against Minnesota. Four points for the Captain and a 7-3 victory later, Pittsburgh could only hope with the turn of the calendar, so would their fortunes.
Video: MIN@PIT: Crosby scores off defender’s stick in return
The Penguins continued to win, and were in a solid playoff position, thanks in large part to the players who weathered the injury storm. Despite it still being mid-January and already having lost close to 200-man-games to injury, what the Penguins found was arguably more impressive. They found a budding defenseman in rookie John Marino, a 22-year-old who played beyond his years. They found a leading goal scorer in someone accustomed to rising to the occasion, versatile forward Bryan Rust. They found perhaps the best goalie tandem in the NHL with the emergence of All-Star Tristan Jarry to team with two-time Cup winner Matt Murray. Ultimately, they found an identity by making the best out of a bad situation. That could come in handy again.
Video: PIT@NYI: Rust wins it in overtime with wraparound
The Penguins were entering the homestretch, and despite missing considerable games over the course of the season from Crosby (28), Malkin (14), Hornqvist (17), Dumoulin (41), Guentzel (30), Letang (8), Schultz (23), Bjugstad (56), Aston-Reese (12), Rust (14), they sat in first place in the Metro entering the last week in February.
Never one to be content (and not knowing what injury would be next), Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford solidified the roster prior to the trade deadline. Acquiring forwards Jason Zucker, Conor Sheary, Evan Rodrigues and veteran Patrick Marleau, who’s NHL debut occurred less than 5 months after John Marino was born.
The March to the playoffs would be exactly that, as the month came in like a lion, and, well, never left. On March 1, the Penguins were in third place in the Metro and scheduled to play 16 games in 29 days. They only made it through five.
On March 12, 2020, the NHL suspended the season. What followed was months of uncertainty, hockey notwithstanding. When the season was paused, the Penguins were third in their division, fifth in their conference and seventh overall in the league standings.
After roughly three months, it was determined that those wouldn’t be their final standings, when the NHL announced a return to hockey plan with the goal of awarding the Stanley Cup in 2020.
Looking back on the hockey year that was, maybe all of those obstacles that the Penguins faced weren’t actually obstacles at all. Maybe they were preparation for the most unpreparable of circumstances. Maybe, because of what they are facing, their resilient identity will have no choice but to surface right away.
Hindsight is 2020.
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