Sunday, the 19th of January, brought a wide array of exciting moments in sports. Among them? American Patrick Kane became the 90th player to record 1,000 regular-season points, the San Francisco 49ers set franchise rushing records in a disembowelment of the Green Bay Packers and a man by the name of Mahomes brought Arrowhead to the sky. Those theatrics notwithstanding, the day’s biggest impression on me came from none of these teams and players but from a game earlier in the day: the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.
For context, let’s go back a couple of scenes.
With the team locker room resembling a hospital at points this season, the Penguins came into the week prior leading the league in man games lost with 188 and as of Sunday’s match, had breached the 200 wall. Many notable names have spent time on Pittsburgh’s injury list this season, names including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and Nick Bjugstad.
So, a lot.
Despite a constantly evolving list of characters, the team hasn’t stagnated. In fact, it’s surged forward. During Crosby’s absence, the unit went 18-6-4. They had one of the more impressive records of December, going 9-2-1.
While a lesser talking point, the goaltending on the back end has been exceptional. With franchise goalie Matt Murray struggling after an initial strong start, coach Mike Sullivan turned to backup Tristan Jarry in mid-November. Jarry has been Vezina-worthy since in 20 games, recording a 2.10 goals-against-average and .929 save percentage. During that hot December, Jarry produced a 1.56 goals against average, .947 save percentage and three shutouts.
While Crosby has returned to doing what Crosby is known to do (he’s produced quite the highlight reel over the last few days), a notable misstep occurred in Boston the prior Thursday in which the Penguins were dispatched 4-1 (3-1 and an empty netter).
After the contest, coach Sullivan commented his team looked tired and lacked the jump in their game they usually have.
A rematch in Pittsburgh awaited them on Sunday and Matt Murray, who has heated up over his last few starts, was given the nod.
It did not start well.
Bruins center Patrice Bergeron would net the game’s first in 11 seconds.
Winger Anders Bjork would make it 2-0 less than two minutes later and star winger David Pastrnak, the league’s leader in goals, made it 3-0 with an assist from Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson, who shuffled the rubber into his own net.
Down 3-0, the game was all but over. No team in the NHL was more consistent with a three-goal lead than the Boston Bruins. Since the 2010-2011 season, the Bruins boasted a 200-1-6 record when leading by as much. Time for the next contest. Pittsburgh was and has always been capable of heroics, especially during Mike Sullivan’s tenure but 200-1-6 and a three-goal deficit? Unlikely seemed a kind term for the situation.
A little over a minute later, Sidney Crosby made a pass from behind the net to an open Dominik Simon, who netted one from along the goal line to cut the deficit to two.
As the period ended, the entire world seemed to have come to the same conclusion: pull Matt Murray. The analysts on NBCSN, most of if not all my media colleagues were calling for it and even I couldn’t come up with a good counterargument. The one man who wasn’t swayed? Mike Sullivan and, as per usual this season, Mike Sullivan was right again. Murray would pitch a shutout the rest of the contest.
Crosby would do Crosby things again in the second, tapping a no-look, behind-the-back pass to an open Teddy Blueger for the Penguins’ second goal horn. Pittsburgh carried play for most of the middle frame.
In the third, the Penguins would find themselves down two forwards. Wingers Dominik Kahun and Dominik Simon (bad time to be named Dominik) both went down with injury. Down a goal to one of the most complete teams in hockey and without their leading scorer (winger Jake Guentzel will likely miss the remainder of the season after shoulder surgery), Pittsburgh would have the added bonus of playing two men short on their bench.
Then the lethal Boston Bruins powerplay (third in the NHL at 26.6%) got an invitation to the ice after a Kris Letang elbow on Bruins winger Brad Marchand.
The Penguins’ luck was simply not good today.
Then the Penguins got a rush shorthanded and Jack Johnson (yes, that Jack Johnson) lumbered his way down the ice to gift the Penguins an odd-man opportunity, drilling a shot under the blocker of Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak.
Now tied at three, Pittsburgh had a chance to do something quite historic here and if you’re wondering who was responsible for such a moment, well, I think you know.
He’s developed quite the reputation for making big plays in big moments, to the point I’ve started calling him “Mr. Clutch”.
He’s tied for 16th in the league for third-period goals and boasts an 18.7 shooting percentage this season, good for 12th in the NHL.
His name is Bryan Rust and Bryan Rust is a Pittsburgh Penguin.
In a goal eerily similar to the Crosby helper that started it all, Malkin won a puck from behind the net and threw it to a wide-open Rust near the bottom of the left circle for the lead-taking tally.
Boston attempted a rally of their own but were stonewalled by a Murray who has apparently recovered his form. In four games to start the new decade, including that Sunday’s, Murray has produced a 4-0 record with a 2.25 goals against average and .928 save percentage.
Pittsburgh continued its heroics after the All-Star break, displaying exquisite passing in an overtime win against rival Philly last night.
The Penguins have been given poor hand after porous hand all season at the table but keep putting together wins despite the odds. I don’t know what’s in the water in Pittsburgh but the Penguins should keep drinking. It’s working wonders for them.