“He’s an inspiring guy for our team,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan of Nick Bonino. “He plays his best when the stakes are high, he’s a great shot-blocker, he’s a brave kid. When he comes back on the bench it gives our whole bench a boost.”
PITTSBURGH — Don’t dare call the Pittsburgh Penguins a finesse team. It’s not just that they resent being characterized as one. It’s also wildly inaccurate.
Yes, the talented defending Stanley Cup champions are led by three of the game’s biggest stars in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. That talented trio has contributed plenty of offense during Pittsburgh’s latest postseason run, as has super rookie Jake Guentzel, who leads the league with 12 playoff goals. But superstar flash alone isn’t what has helped Pittsburgh build a 2-0 series lead against the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final heading into Game 3 on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena.
“I think we’re a scrappy group,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after Pittsburgh’s 4-1 win in Game 2. “It’s not always pretty, but this group is resilient. We’re competitive.”
That scrappiness may have been encapsulated Wednesday night in Pittsburgh by a single play. With 9:32 remaining in the opening period and the game scoreless, Penguins center Nick Bonino helped kill Nashville’s 4-on-3 advantage after simultaneous penalties to Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin were followed 58 seconds later by an interference call on Predators captain Mike Fisher. Crouching down to cover as much ice as possible, Bonino took a P.K. Subban slap shot off his left foot. The shot, courtesy of a player known throughout the league for his ability to fire rockets from the point, left Bonino face-down on the ice.
After being attended to by Penguins training staff, he hobbled off the ice with the help of his teammates before limping to the locker room. Every indication was that Bonino — Pittsburgh’s most reliable penalty-killing forward and a clutch playoff performer whose six career postseason game-winning goals match the totals of Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Logan Couture and Jeff Carter and exceed those of Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron and Nicklas Backstrom — was the latest victim in the Penguins’ seemingly endless stream of injuries this season.
Bonino exited the game in agony, but was back before the end of the period.
“He’s an inspiring guy for our team. He plays his best when the stakes are high, he’s a great shot-blocker and he’s a brave kid. When he comes back on the bench I know it gives our whole bench a boost,” said Sullivan. “Those are the types of plays that help teams win, especially at this time of year. That was a big part of the game for us.”
For all the talent and flair this team has demonstrated, the Penguins would prefer to think of Bonino’s block and his subsequent return as the moment that best reflects their team’s personality. Heading into Game 3 in Nashville, Pittsburgh is first in the league this postseason with 372 blocks, 66 more than the second-ranked Ottawa Senators. That statistic isn’t tilted by the number of games the Penguins have played this season. Among the 16 teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, Pittsburgh ranked third, with 1,307 regular-season blocks. Among that same group of playoff teams, they ranked fourth during the regular season, with 2,060 hits.
Even with supremely talented players who are capable of making moves most NHL players couldn’t even dream of, these plays — the courageous block, the big hit, the extra reach to keep a play alive or start a rush — are the ones that get the Penguins’ bench going.
Sullivan likes to call them “thankless jobs,” and they’re the driving force behind a team that is two wins shy of winning its second consecutive Cup title.
“Obviously we love to see our guys score goals and make pretty plays. With the culture we have in this room, I think everyone is just as excited, if not more excited, for when guys block shots, take hits to make plays or get pucks out of our zone along the wall,” said defenseman Ian Cole. “We feed off that.”
That “scrappiness” that Sullivan covets isn’t just about how his players sacrifice themselves on the ice. It’s also about the way his players respond when teammates go down. And for the past two months, they’ve been dropping like flies for the Penguins.
The empirical evidence that the Penguins have provided throughout this Cup run suggests that Pittsburgh could have overcome Bonino’s absence had he not returned. A quick look at the team’s injury ledger since mid-April clearly shows that.
Since the eve of the postseason, the Penguins have dealt with:
- The announcement that franchise defenseman Kris Letang had undergone neck surgery and would miss the playoffs.
- Defenseman Trevor Daley missing the last two games of the second round with a lower-body injury.
- Forward Kunitz missing the opening round.
- Goaltender Matt Murray missing the first two rounds of the playoffs.
- Defenseman Justin Schultz and forward Bryan Rust both exiting Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals before missing multiple games with injuries.
- Forward Patric Hornqvist missing almost the entire conference final.
- Crosby missing Game 4 against the Washington Capitals — which Pittsburgh won — after hits from Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen left him concussed and inspired pandemonium-level debate across the hockey world.
So losing Bonino really would have just been the latest addition to Pittsburgh’s postseason triage unit. But Bonino wasn’t having any of it, and instead returned to the ice and led all Penguins players with 11 faceoffs won and a 61 percent success rate on the draw. Just another typical performance for the gutsy Penguins.
“That’s the kind of dedication this team has to win,” said Murray. “It shows the commitment of this team to win. That’s sacrificing your body for the good of the team. It gives a huge boost of energy to everyone on the team and everyone on the bench as well.”