As Adversity Mounts, Pens Look for Improved Response

Saturday, after the Pittsburgh Penguins extended their losing streak to four games with a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils that was nearly a carbon copy of the one to the New York Rangers the night before, winger James Neal spoke of the need to keep moving forward.

“We’re doing good things. We’re coming out and dictating the way we want to play, putting pucks on net and going to the net … it’s just those little bounces that are right there that we haven’t been able to capitalize on.

“It’s obviously frustrating, but we know we’re a better team than this, and we’ve shown it. You can’t hang your head; you’ve got to stay up and stay positive because, when you get in those slumps, if you keep your head down, you know you’re not going to get better. It starts with one goal, one practice, and go from there.”

The Penguins, however, are going to have to find a way to capitalize on those bounces without their – and the league’s fifth – leading goal-scorer. Neal sustained a broken foot when he was hit by a shot late in the third period of Saturday’s contest, and will be out of the lineup for an undetermined timeframe that head coach Dan Bylsma described as “weeks, not days.”

More bad news came Sunday with word that center Jordan Staal will miss four-to-six weeks with a torn MCL suffered Friday in a collision with New York Rangers forward Mike Rupp. The news could have been much worse, however, as Staal will not require surgery, just recovery time and rehabilitation.

Such is the Penguins’ luck right now that the team couldn’t even get out of Sunday’s practice – called on a previously scheduled day off – unscathed. Forward Craig Adams, who moved up from the fourth line Saturday to assume second-line duty in light of the club’s many injuries, collided with defenseman Brooks Orpik at practice, fell to the ice clutching his knee, and required assistance to the dressing room. “He stressed a previous injury, and we’ll see how he is [Monday] morning, after further evaluation,” Bylsma said.

The Penguins have now lost 210 man-games to injury this season, including 32 for captain Sidney Crosby and 16 for top defenseman Kris Letang. At their current pace, they would lose 431 man-games by the end of the season, surpassing last year’s 350.

Although the team can’t do much about its injury situation, Bylsma said, there’s plenty of room for improvement that is within his players’ control.

“You understand there’s going to be injuries, and you move on and you get ready to play the next game,” he said. “The last few games, we’ve played some good hockey. We’ve done some good things, particularly in the first periods.

“But how we react to certain circumstances – [us] making a mistake, them scoring a goal – has been a problem for our team, responding to that adversity and playing through it. That’s something we have to get better at. Especially in the situation we’re in, with the players we have and the team on the ice, we have to be real focused on playing our game and be able to withstand that bounce or call or situation in the game and then get right back to our game, continue to play, and have those 60-minute periods of hockey we’ve shown we can play.”

For now, the Penguins will look to players within the organization for that accountability. GM Ray Shero will also likely work the phones to see what help is available, and what it will cost, leading up to the February 27 trade deadline. With Saturday’s loss, Pittsburgh fell to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, just one point away from dropping out of a playoff spot.

“We understand where we’re at, and we understand we’re going to have to recall one [or] two players to step in, and they’re going to be playing significant roles,” Bylsma said. “Guys will step up in those situations and will get opportunities to score goals for us and be effective for us. It’s going to be a group of guys out there and, because of the way we play, they’ll be in those opportunities. And that’s got to be our biggest focus, rather than counting on [any specific players] to score goals.

“As a group, we’ve got to find a way to be able to go out and have success and win hockey games … that kind of team game, going out and playing it every night to give ourselves a chance to have success, have some wins and keep us going toward the playoffs.”

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