Pittsburgh Penguins Lack a True Heart and Soul Player


The Pittsburgh Penguins have looked great so far in 2014-15, putting together a 13-4-2 record that has them tied for the Metropolitan Division lead.

They lead the league in goals-per-game, they have strong special teams, and their stars have been putting up the numbers we’ve come to expect.

But all of that is nothing new.

Pittsburgh has been strong during the regular season for years and have long been one of the best in the league at putting pucks in the twine.

What they lack is something that won’t be found in the statistics or the standings. It’s something we’ll only see on the ice, each game, when the intensity ramps up and the team is faced with adversity. It’s something we’ll see when the chips are down and the team needs the motivation to rally and endure.

There’s a certain type of player who thrives in these situations. They won’t be the ones to bring home scoring titles or MVP awards, but they’re the ones that command respect from every player in their dressing room because every time they step on the ice they prove that they would give anything to see see their team succeed.

It’s players like these that are the true core of a team – the heart and soul guys that wear their hearts on their sleeves and refuse to allow their teammates to back down under any circumstances.

Pittsburgh has been without such a player for a number of years – a key reason they have not found success in the grind of the postseason – and, despite the success of their current season, the team has yet to fill the role.

The current Pens are not short on determination or work ethic. With players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang – all among the best at their position and all notoriously dedicated workers – they certainly have their bases covered in that department.

But that heart and soul figure boasts a different type of dedication.

We saw it in Ryan Malone when the Pens reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008. The Pittsburgh born-and-bred winger – the first Pittsburgh native to ever play for the Penguins – was the epitome of this dedication. He was playing for more than just a good stat line. He was even playing for more than just wins. He was playing for the city, ensuring that Pittsburgh stood tall and was respected as one of the best, regardless of the outcome.

Malone’s departure after the 2008 Finals dealt the team a serious blow, but they endured at the time because they had a few other similar players kicking around the locker room. Max Talbot took over the role after Malone’s exit, and performed his duty well – no more so than in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship run in 2009.

Sure Talbot scored the winning goals in Game 7 that got Pittsburgh their first cup of the Crosby era, but those tallies weren’t his finest performance during the postseason run.

His real importance was made known in Game 6 of the first round against the rival Philadelphia Flyers. Pittsburgh had a chance to close out the series in Philly but it looked to be rapidly moving out of reach. Coming off a shutout loss to the Flyers one game earlier, the Pens gave up 3 goals in the first 25 minutes and seemed set to let the series move back to Pittsburgh for Game 7 with Philly holding all the momentum.

But Talbot stepped up and rallied his team, dropping the gloves with Daniel Carcillo midway through the second period. While the fight didn’t go Talbot’s way, he didn’t care. He didn’t need to win. He just needed to show that Pittsburgh wouldn’t go down without a fight.

As the Flyers crowd rained cheers down on their victor, Talbot raised a finger to his lips to tell them “Shhh”, still refusing to back down. His effort didn’t go unnoticed as the Pens put up 5 unanswered goals to win the game and close out the series.

If Talbot doesn’t drop the gloves in Game 6, maybe the Penguins never win that game, or that series, and never make it to that Game 7 in the Finals at all. Malkin may have won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, deservedly, but in Pittsburgh’s locker room they knew that it took much more than the talented Russian to drive his team forward.

But then the Pens lost Talbot too, leaving them with only one such player on their roster – Jordan Staal.

The youngest of Pittsburgh’s “Big Three”, Staal’s devotion to his club was similarly shown during their championship run in 2009, though his display didn’t come until the Penguins’ final series against Detroit.

After the Red Wings took Games 1 and 2 of the series, the Pens managed to take Game 3. In Game 4, just 46 seconds into the second period, Detroit looked like they might just take over the series as they scored a quick one to take the score to 2-1.

Eight minutes later Brooks Orpik was sent to the box and the Red Wings were given a chance to add to their lead in the hopes of taking the Pens to the brink of elimination.

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This time it was Staal who stepped up, powering his way up ice and going backhand to forehand to net a shorthanded goal and tie the game. It wasn’t just the goal that got Pittsburgh fired up, it was Staal’s reaction to the tally.

The young centre threw his hands in the air and yelled with excitement to the cheering fans on the other side of the glass. With the building on its feet, Pittsburgh posted two more goals and won the game, tying the series at two games apiece.

They would go on to win Games 6 and 7 to capture the Stanley Cup.

After Staal was moved to Carolina in 2012, however, Pittsburgh lost the last of this heart and soul aspect. Brandon Sutter has been great for the Pens since coming over, but he hasn’t replaced Staal’s unmatched determination.

While Crosby and Malkin demonstrate every day that they will give all they have to push Pittsburgh forward, the past few seasons have shown that this simply isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to have the best offense in the league, or one of the strongest D-corps in the league, or even a more solid Marc-Andre Fleury manning the net.

What the Penguins need is to recover their heart and soul. They need that player who can step onto the ice when it looks like the Pens are down and out, and can bring them back to life.

Maybe Patric Hornqvist will be that guy. Maybe Steve Downie will. They certainly have a host of players who look like they could grow into the role and have shown their dedication to the team thus far.

But as of this moment the Penguins don’t have anyone who did what Malone did, what Talbot did, or what Staal did.

They don’t have that intangible essence of pure competitive drive, and until they find that, their postseason record isn’t going to look any different than it has for the past five seasons.