After starting the week on a high note, with a home-and-home sweep of their Metropolitan Division rival Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins came crashing back to earth this weekend as their most hated rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, did the same to them.
Already missing their top two defensemen in Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (hand surgery) for the foreseeable future – not to mention other notables like top-line winger Pascal Dupuis, done for the season after ACL/MCL surgery – the Penguins had still managed to build enough of a cushion to lead the division by 15 points over the Flyers after the weekend sweep. They also remain within three points of the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Still, the games against the Flyers exposed a disjointed, undermanned team that – facing the new losses of its top two wingers in James Neal (concussion, indefinite) and Chris Kunitz (undisclosed, day-to-day) – finally seemed to hit the saturation point of how much it could feasibly overcome.
The Penguins have now lost 413 man-games to injuries and illnesses this season, most in the NHL and most in their franchise history.
The absence of puck-moving defensemen Martin and Letang, in particular, has made an impact on Pittsburgh’s ability to play its preferred puck-possession system, as the team has spent considerable time since the Olympic break trying to defend its own zone.
“There have been some games where that’s been the case for sure,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “That’s one of the things we want to be good at and do well defensively is play in the offensive zone. You’re not going to be able to prevent teams from playing [in your zone] all the time, and you have to be able to play good defense when you do get there … but we’ve got to get better coming out of the D zone with the puck.”
“The last few years, that’s been one of our strengths as a team; we get out of [our zone] quick,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Clean exits, puck on our stick, we’re going the other way quickly [and] not expending a lot of energy there. We haven’t executed as well in the last little while; teams have had a little more sustained forecheck on us, a little more offensive zone time. We’ve identified a few things we want to get better at and we’re working to get better, but we’ve got a ways to go yet.”
The Penguins were loathe to use their personnel issues to excuse a weekend where they played only two periods of inspired hockey – the second and third frames of Sunday’s contest – out of six.
“I don’t know if that’s asking a lot … to try to compete for 60 minutes,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We didn’t do a very good job of that in the first, [and] that’s the expectation is to go out there and play well for 60 minutes, so I don’t see any positive in playing only [the last] 40.”
Of particular note were Pittsburgh’s special teams, which – despite being at or near No. 1 in the league – didn’t look very special against the Flyers. The Penguins’ penalty kill allowed three goals on seven Philadelphia power-play chances, while their power play not only went 0-for-9, but gave up two shorthanded goals.
“Those are killers,” Niskanen said. “[We] have several power plays where we can’t seem to get control, can’t get set up, not a whole lot’s going right, and I think we got a little bit frustrated. And then you add on the shorties; that hurts. That’s really taking momentum away from your team. We’ve got to correct that.”
“There are times where your power play’s good and it doesn’t score, but that’s not the case here,” Crosby said. “It’s not very good right now.”
Taking penalties against the Flyers, especially those of the undisciplined, frustrated variety, didn’t help the Penguins’ cause, either.
“That’s something we knew coming in[to Sunday’s game], especially early on,” Crosby said. “We didn’t want to give them momentum, and we had three penalties in the first period. We knew coming in that would be dangerous to do, and [the Flyers capitalizing] is exactly what we expect.”
“They have a lot of options, a lot of weapons on that power play, and they know how to use it,” Niskanen said. “They’re confident.”
“When you come back and win a second period and a third period … I liked our team’s response and how we played and competed in the game and the physicality,” Bylsma said. “We just let their special teams be the difference in the game tonight with the penalties that we took.”
Following Sunday’s game, the Penguins had the rare luxury of announcing some positive roster news, as Byslma said forward Beau Bennett (hand/wrist surgery) and Letang had been cleared to return to full practice Monday. Both are ahead of original projections, but Letang’s news comes as a particular surprise as the team has been proceeding under the assumption that he would not return this season.
There is still no timetable for Letang’s return to game action, nor any official cause given for his stroke, which may be related to a hole doctors discovered in his heart.
Still, “it’s better than thinking about subtracting guys from your lineup, which we’ve done,” Bylsma said.
And, regardless of who is in or out, the Penguins hope to rebound from their disappointing set against the Flyers during a busy week that sees them host the Dallas Stars, visit the Detroit Red Wings, then return home for weekend games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues.
“I think we’ve missed guys before throughout the year and found ways,” Crosby said. “I don’t think we’re going to use that as an excuse.”
“There’s not been a point at any time this season that we’ve looked at injuries or the loss of a player as any indication of our play or what we’re doing out there,” Bylsma said. “We don’t make a list of the players that are out of our lineup going into a game. We feel totally capable with the guys that we have, the guys that are inserted to play.”