When the 2019-20 season began, Mike Sullivan was coaching a hockey team.
These days, he probably feels like he's overseeing a Jenga game.
One by one, key parts of his club have been removed, and it's been Sullivan's job to keep the whole thing from collapsing. First, the Penguins lost Bryan Rust, who was injured in the final preseason game. Then Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad, who were hurt in the second game of the regular season. Alex Galchenyuk went down in Game No. 3, and Jared McCann wasn't able to go in the seventh one.
McCann returned Friday night for the Penguins' overtime victory against the Stars, but had to sit out the 3-0 loss to the Golden Knights at PPG Paints Arena 24 hours later.
And he wasn't even the most noteworthy absentee when the Penguins' five-game winning streak ended Saturday. Brian Dumoulin had that distinction, as he was yanked not long before the opening faceoff, apparently because of an undisclosed injury.
Dumoulin, one of the Penguins' alternate captains, was such a late scratch that Patric Hornqvist didn't have Dumoulin's "A" stitched onto his sweater until the first intermission.
Dumoulin's departure had a ripple effect on the defense corps, as the Marcus Pettersson-Justin Schultz pairing was the only one that remained intact.
As the opening period progressed, Jack Johnson, who had been scheduled to have the night off, ended up partnering with the guy who had been penciled in to replace him, Erik Gudbranson, on the third pairing. That meant rookie John Marino, who had been working on the No. 3 unit, ultimately moved into Dumoulin's spot alongside Kris Letang, with one key difference: Marino stayed on the right side, which meant that Letang, who usually plays there, had to switch to the left.
"We were kind of mixing-and-matching the pairs," Marino said. "We just kind of figured it out as the first period went along."
Other than that, things likely went exactly the way Sullivan and his staff had been anticipating a day earlier.
Oh, except for the part where defensemen Juuso Riikola was compelled to play left wing for the second time in three games, because McCann's absence meant the Penguins again only had 11 healthy forwards.
And perhaps the part in which Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all 29 shots his former team launched at him to earn his 57th career shutout and Vegas' first-ever victory here.
Fleury stopped every shot that he had to, because the crossbar and posts took care of the ones that eluded him.
"(Fleury) was in top form, and we hit a couple of posts," Letang said. "It could have been a different game, but some nights, it goes that way."
None of the guys who once played with Fleury begrudged him the success he had in this game and, like most hockey people, they'd rather stop a Shea Weber slap shot with their incisors than make excuses for losing a game. It was, then, predictable that they would shrug off the impact of having a standing-room-only crowd in their medical room.
"It's easy to (blame injuries)," Marino said. "But with the guys we have in this room, we still had a big chance to win tonight. And if we keep playing the right way, it doesn't matter who's in the lineup. We'll still be able to come up with a win."
The Golden Knights got the only goal they would need during a power play at 3:48 of the second period, when Paul Stastny took a cross-ice feed from Cody Glass and threw a shot past goalie Tristan Jarry from inside the right circle:
Although the Penguins stopped Vegas on its other two chances with the extra man, the Golden Knights made life miserable for the penalty-killers with exceptional puck movement.
"We did a pre-scout on them and kind of talked about it," Zach Aston-Reese said. "But watching on video and going out there and doing it are different things sometimes. Sam (Lafferty) and I got caught out there for a full two minutes (during the second Vegas power play)."
Vegas inflated its margin of victory with two late goals -- William Karlsson got an empty-netter while killing a penalty at 18:45 of the third period and Mark Stone scored another 23 seconds later -- but the final score was not an accurate reflection of how the game played out. Or of the effort the Penguins put into it.
"It's a one-goal hockey game," Sullivan said. "We got a fair amount of chances and couldn't seem to find a way to put it in the net."
While that's a pretty big failing -- after all, you can't win without scoring at least once -- it was the only major blemish on the Penguins' performance.
"You don't leave the rink with your head down," Aston-Reese said. "It sucks, losing. But there's a right way to lose and a wrong way to lose, and we competed and we battled and we had our chances. The bounces just didn't go our way."
There will be nights when they do, especially if the Penguins continue to invest in playing the right way, as they have for most of the past half-dozen games.
"We're playing the game hard," Sullivan said. "We're competing. We're playing together. We're given ourselves a chance, no matter who we play. This was a tough week for us. We played some really good hockey teams, and we won a fair amount of them. You can't always control the outcome, but you can control your effort, your attitude, your execution. And from the coaching staff's standpoint, that was all there."
Never mind that so many important players weren't. Again.
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