The Back of the Huddle

The Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a hot start this season, and some unknown names are to thank.

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Photo by Joe Sargent

Penguin rookie Drew O’Connor scored two goals against the Maple Leafs last Saturday, October 23rd.

Nolan Collery, Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a rough streak of luck headed into the 2021 season. The 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup Champions knew that going into opening night, they would be faced with circumstances they had not seen in almost decades. It has been 18 years since the Penguins have opened an NHL season without captains Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. For reference, that 2003 lineup featured rookie goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.  

As if these losses weren’t enough, within the first five games of the season, the Penguins would miss the services of captain Kris Letang, Jeff Carter, Bryan Rust, Zach Aston-Reese, and Jake Guentzel for at least one game each. Yet somehow, the Pens sit in third place in a talent-heavy Metropolitan Division. 

Over the first five games of the season, the Pens have an impressive 3-0-2 record, recording eight of a possible ten points for the season.

What this team’s lineup lacks in star power, it makes up for in offensive output. The Penguins boast the second-highest scoring offense in the NHL, only behind Edmonton by one goal.

However, the Pens are not just putting pucks in the back of the net — the defense is keeping the rubber out of their own goal. The Penguins have allowed the tenth-fewest goals so far, creating the second-highest goal differential in the league — an impressive +11.

I think O’Connor is a really promising player for the Penguins. He’s an exciting young player who knows how to use his frame, and is flashing tons of potential. This guy is only going to improve as the season goes on”

— NASH Senior, Drew Lopuszynski

The key to success for the Penguins has been new faces stepping into bigger roles. One such player who has caught attention is rookie center Drew O’Connor. Amidst the recent injuries, O’Connor was placed on the second line in a match against the Maple Leafs. He responded with a dominant two-goal outing. Currently tied for second in total points for rookies, O’Connor has Pens fans excited. 

“I think O’Connor is a really promising player for the Penguins,” NASH senior and longtime Penguins fan Drew Lopuszynski, said. “He’s an exciting young player who knows how to use his frame, and is flashing tons of potential. This guy is only going to improve as the season goes on.” 

O’Connor’s star potential is not only exciting the Pens’ faithful, but his skills are captivating a new generation of fans. 

NASH senior, Gannon Sprinkle, attended his first ever Penguins game against the Leafs and immediately found a favorite player in O’Connor. 

“O’Connor is so incredibly good. I know so little about hockey, but I am confident that he’s my man,” Sprinkle said. “His second goal won me a free Big Mac, so I think I owe a lot to him.”

Another player stepping up in a big way is defenseman Marcus Pettersson. Penguins fans have always been able to rely on the playmaking that the injured Kris Letang brought to the lineup, and Pettersson picked up for the injured captain. His goal and two assists against Toronto made him look like the hottest man on the ice, and NASH senior Alex Risacher couldn’t help but be impressed. 

“I was impressed with his play on Saturday, especially for a guy who didn’t even start,” Risacher said. “To be honest, I wasn’t even sure who he was going into the game, but now I expect him to keep up his playmaking all season.” 

With Crosby, Malkin, and Carter all out, the starting center position was up in the air leading into the game, so the Pens called Evan Rodrigues’ number — and he was ready. 

“He’s kind of been our Swiss Army knife,” Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan told the Post-Gazette. “He’s just a real versatile player. That’s one of the values that he brings to our team.”

Sullivan, who has done an outstanding job coaching the injured team, had high praise for Rodrigues through five games.

He’s kind of been our Swiss Army knife. He’s just a real versatile player. That’s one of the values that he brings to our team.”

— Penguins Head Coach, Mike Sullivan

In the same post-game interview, the coach added, “If we need a power-play guy? Well, E Rod can do that. If we need someone to play center? E Rod can do that. If we need someone to help us on the penalty kill? Well, we know E Rod can do that.”

This Penguins team is not a familiar sight for long-time fans, a reality that is not changing any time soon. With Crosby, Malkin, Letang and the others out for an unknown amount of time, these new faces are going to need to step up their game this season. Pens fans can only sit back, and hope that this island of misfit players can keep up the pace.