PITTSBURGH — The handful of men who carry out the most thankless of tasks for the Pittsburgh Penguins are a rag-tag group thrown together by circumstance and a touch of foresight by general manager Jim Rutherford.
They are largely anonymous and blissfully so, only too happy to work in the considerable shadows created by the stars who play in front of them and their unquestioned leader, the one forced to watch the franchise’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup Final in immaculately tailored suits from the press box while he recovers from neck surgery.
When defenseman Kris Letang’s star-crossed season ended for good in early April when he abandoned any hope of a comeback from the injuries that limited him to just 40 games this season, the chances of the Penguins becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles was supposed to vanish along with him.
Yet here they are hosting Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night, four wins away from a repeat that seemed improbable seven weeks ago. And they’ve done it with a group of blue liners who lack Letang’s unique talents or the undeniable dynamic charisma of the defensemen like P.K. Subban who have helped power the Predators’ dominant sprint to the final.
“That’s fine with us,” said Brian Dumoulin, who leads the Penguins in ice time during the postseason. “They’re great players and stuff like that. No chip on our shoulder. We know who we are as a D core.”
They might be one of the few. A quick introduction.
There’s well-traveled Ron Hainsey, the 36-year-old who needed to wait a record 907 games before reaching the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career.
There’s Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, the battle-tested veteran and the baby-faced kid from Finland, both of whom spent significant chunks of time on the injured reserve this season only to develop an unquantifiable chemistry during the playoffs.
There’s Dumoulin, who has become Pittsburgh’s new iron man with Letang out. There’s Ian Cole, the thoughtful well-bearded conscience who revels in the more physical aspects of his job.
There’s 39-year-old Mark Streit, who like Hainsey was brought in as insurance at the trade deadline then spent six weeks as a healthy scratch only to fill in capably when another spate of injuries struck in the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa.
Mostly, however, there’s Justin Schultz. Considered a disappointment during three-plus underwhelming seasons in Edmonton, Schultz has spent 15 months in Pittsburgh remodeling his game.
It’s Schultz who has taken over as the quarterback on the Penguins’ potent power play. It’s Schultz who has found a knack for the big moment. He delivered the winning goal in Game 4 of the second round against Washington. He put the Penguins ahead in the third period of Game 7 against Ottawa and ended up with the secondary assist on Chris Kunitz’s knuckler that finally put away the Senators in double overtime.
Schultz is reluctant to talk about his transformation or the upper-body injury that sidelined him for four games during the Ottawa series. He returned for the decider to play more than 24 minutes, gritting his teeth all the way through.
When asked if the injury limited his ability to get off the shot that became his third goal of the postseason, Schultz responded with typical modesty.
“Not full but like I said, those guys did such a good job screening … it didn’t have to be the hardest shot to get through,” said Schultz, who set a career -high with 51 points during the regular season and has added another 10 in the playoffs.
Schultz, however, could always shoot. That’s never been the problem. It’s at the other end of the ice where he’s truly matured and likely made him one of the most coveted free agents to be in the process.
The defenseman who never had any trouble jumping into the play has not become adept at thwarting them too.
“He’s always had ability to excel on the offensive side,” said Penguins assistant Jacques Martin, who coaches the defense. “He’s got tremendous vision. He’s been able to replace Kris on the power play. The area (of growth) that’s most noticeable has been his defensive side … his positioning. He’s improved his compete level, his use of his stick, his position. All areas he’s grown in over the season.”
The Penguins have needed every last ounce of it as they have from the rest of their defensemen who has spent the last four months trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Letang.
It’s been a group effort. More than once Pittsburgh has been forced to go long stretches in games with only five defensemen because one of them went down. When Shultz left Game 2 against the Senators, Dumoulin played 26 minutes, Hainsey nearly 25 and Maatta 22. The Penguins survived 1-0 to even the series.
“if you look at last year in playoffs it was Kris Letang and then the rest of us,” Dumoulin said. “That’s not the case right now. Obviously whatever role that you’re asked to do, whatever opportunity is there, you’re going to do it. We’re not going to be the offensive guy Kris Letang was. Nobody is going to be in that aspect.”
The object is to make sure it doesn’t matter. So far, it hasn’t.
“I think we have a group back there that cares about each other, that are really playing within their limitations,” Martin said. “I think that’s the key.”