Depleted Lineup Gives Baby Pens an Opportunity

When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday, four of their 12 forwards had been summoned from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins the day before. Two others had started the year with the Baby Pens, giving Pittsburgh a forward roster with half of its players called up from its farm club.

Gone is a top line with the ability to pair a two-pronged threat like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to jump-start the offense; Thursday, the Penguins fielded a No. 1 line that featured Pascal Dupuis, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.

The casualties of their injury- and suspension-depleted lineup include five of their seven top goal scorers – Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Malkin, rookie Mark Letestu and Matt Cooke. In their places are highly-touted prospects including Brett Sterling, Nick Johnson and Joe Vitale, and a more seasoned veteran in Ryan Craig, all called up Wednesday.

On this night, at least, no problem.

Sterling – a Pasadena, California, native who grew up watching the Kings – netted his first as a Penguin early in the contest, with assists from Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey.

“We all knew each other, we played together in Wilkes-Barre, we were comfortable,” Sterling said. “And a play like that, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Wilkes-Barre or in Pittsburgh. All of us knowing each other, knowing where we were going to be, it worked out. It was nice to get a quick one.”

Craig saw time on the penalty kill and gave the team a lift with a fight, stepping in when Los Angeles’ Wayne Simmonds went after Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang for a big hit, while Vitale played a physical game with four hits and cleared a puck away from an open cage.

“I thought the line of Jeffrey, Sterling and Johnson in the first period was our best,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “They come out and get us the goal to start off with. It was a great play, a cycle play. Dustin makes a great pass and that’s a great spot for Brett; he’s a good triggerman and that’s a great goal. And after L.A. scored and got that one back, they came out the next shift and got a really good chance, almost got us on the board there.

“I thought Nick Johnson was really good, showed his speed, was good in the defensive zone and was an effective guy for us. Brett played some meaningful minutes and gets us the goal, and Joe Vitale and Ryan Craig, all were put in situations where they had to deliver for us. A lot of big contributions from the guys that we just recently called up.”

Pittsburgh got a gritty defensive performance, highlighted by blueliner Zbynek Michalek sacrificing his body for seven blocked shots and sweeping away two that were loose around the crease, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury making 32 saves.

“I thought our defensemen played a whale of a game back there,” Bylsma said. “Michalek was excellent, [Paul] Martin played really well, we battled. [Brooks] Orpik had a Game 5 in the ’08 Finals type of shift in overtime. We did get hemmed in a few times [but] our defensemen played really well, and Flower, and we found a way to scratch out some opportunities.”

Staal led the Penguins with five shots on goal, with the fifth finding the net late in overtime to lift Pittsburgh to a 2-1 win and stem a two-game losing streak.

“I just buried my head and fired as hard as I could,” Staal said. “I think the last couple were pretty much the same shot, and that one just luckily went in.”

“We had a chance right at the end of the game and, in typical [former Penguins, now Kings, defenseman] Rob Scuderi fashion, he makes a big save for them to put it to overtime, and then Jordan comes up big,” Bylsma said.

Of course, with the way the Penguins’ luck has been going recently, they couldn’t find a way to get out of the game unscathed. Jeffrey – a frequent call-up this year who finally stuck in the lineup as the team’s injury situation worsened – found himself joining the IR with a lower-body injury resulting from a crash into the net.

Jeffrey has made an impact in his 13 NHL games this year, chipping in four goals and seven assists. Worse, he’s been playing center, the position where the Penguins have been the hardest hit. Forward Eric Tangradi, sent down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton two days earlier, was called back up to replace him.

“It’s been one of those unusual things, but it’s something every team deals with and, hopefully, we get through,” said Staal, adding that the Baby Pens playing the same system as the big club makes the transition nearly seamless for the call-ups. “They’re stepping in and know all the plays and know what to do, and they’re doing a great job,” he said. “It’s nice; when those guys come up, they’re ready to play.”

Bylsma also picked up his 100th NHL win, becoming the fifth-fastest coach in league history to reach that milestone and doing it in gratifying fashion. Still, he knows the season is far from over, especially with the challenges his club faces.

“The most thought I gave 100 wins was probably before the season started; I knew the number was 35 to get there,” Bylsma said. “It’s kind of a rewarding [way] to get the 100th one, just the way our team did it and battled. It’s a big team win, lots of contributions from different guys, and we’ll add the two points.

“But it’s only 35, and we’ve got more work to do here.”

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