By Mike Olson
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference since New Year, posting a record of 18-9-4 and battling for the Metropolitan Division title. The team has been up and coming since they made a coaching change in December of 2015 that has seen new coach Mike Sullivan’s coaching tactics result in a much faster team, and he has coached them to be more offensive minded. However, after nearly 3 months of great play, on March 12th of this year the team got really bad news. The second leading scorer on the team, Evgeni Malkin, sustained an upper body injury and will miss six to eight weeks. What does that mean for the Penguins, and how does that affect their postseason hopes? Well earlier in the season the team posted a record of 5-4-1 without the services of Malkin, so we know the team can win without the All-Star, but for a team trying to win the division title, this may be quite a blow to their hopes.
In sports you always hear the term “next man up” or “this injury opens up the door for another player to shine.” Well these will be key for the Penguins since Malkin’s injury will carry over to the playoffs. So who will that man be for the Pens? Don’t get me wrong I don’t think anyone can replace the talented Malkin. It will take a whole bunch of players, but I believe Nick Bonino has the ability to fill the role the best.
Bonino has played 264 career NHL games and has scored 48 times and has 73 assists. This season he has battled a hand injury and has only 4 goals and 9 assists. However, once Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessell can build some chemistry with Bonino, it could be a very good line. Hagelin has 8 goals and 18 assists and Kessell has 20 goals and 25 assists.
The team will have to lean on Marc- Andre Fleury who became just the 20th goalie in NHL history to win 350 games, when the Pens beat the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night. He has 29 wins with puts him seventh in the league. And he has the ability to single handedly take over a game and lead the team to many victories, as he plays arguably the most valuable position in the sport.
However, even with Andre Fleury defending the net, the team definitely faces an uphill battle playing without one of the best players in the league. The Eastern Conference is very competitive this season which has consisted of teams flipping positions in the standings. Currently this Pittsburgh team sits in 7th place, one point ahead of the Detroit Red Wings who find themselves in 8th place, and only four points ahead of rivalry Philadelphia Flyers who will play the Pens 3 times before the season comes to end. If the Penguins can right the ship and get into the playoffs they can be a dangerous team and can make a deep run. If they crumble under pressure they will find themselves booking tee times instead of playing hockey. And most of that depends on Nick Bonino and the rest of the Pens to pick up the slack of missing one of the game’s best.