Friday should have been a pretty good night for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They snapped a two-game mini-slump where they were outscored a combined 10-2 by the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, rebounding to beat the Rangers, 2-1, in a shootout. New acquisition Jussi Jokinen proved to be a great fit in his Penguins debut, filling in for Sidney Crosby on the top line, scoring Pittsburgh’s lone goals in both regulation and the shootout, and going an astonishing 13-2 (87 percent) in the faceoff circle. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury rebounded the way he typically does from subpar outings, stopping all but one of 35 Rangers shots to steal the game. And the team was coming up on a rare luxury in this compressed season, with no games or practice scheduled for Saturday or Sunday.
The loss of yet another key player cast a raincloud over those positives, however, as the Penguins lost their third-leading scorer, James Neal, to a concussion when he was elbowed under the chin by Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto. Neal did not travel with the Penguins this week as they headed for a three-game swing through Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida.
As Neal joined Crosby on the shelf for an indeterminate period of time, head coach Dan Bylsma continued to shuffle his lines to compensate. Subbing for Neal with Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla will be Chris Kunitz, who had a career year last season playing alongside Malkin and Neal. This year, he’s second between Crosby and Neal among Penguins’ scorers and among the league’s top overall point getters. Rookie Beau Bennett has been recalled from the Baby Penguins to take Neal’s roster spot.
“I hope he feels better; I haven’t seen him in two days [since the concussion],” Malkin said of Neal. “I hope he comes back soon, before the playoffs, because I’ll miss him.” On what Kunitz brings to the mix, Malkin said, “he’s smart; he knows what’s going on on the ice. He’s quick, unbelievable shot. We just work together; we know how we worked before.”
The Penguins did get some good news Monday as defenseman Kris Letang took the next step from skating on his own and practiced with the team. Letang has missed 11 of 39 games this season, including the last five, and his loss has been sorely felt by a team that’s missing another puck-moving defenseman, Paul Martin, for what’s likely to be the rest of the regular season.
“I just practiced once so I don’t think it’s fair to say” whether he’ll play on the road trip, Letang said. “We’ll see how I feel tomorrow and go from there.” He said that taking his return slow this time is “to get ready for the big picture. There’s no rush to get back but, at the same time, it’s a short season. I want to start playing and being healthy and making sure, [when] I get into the playoffs, I’m ready to go.”
Crosby still has no timetable for his return, following surgeries to repair the broken jaw and extensive teeth damage suffered March 30 when he was hit by teammate Brooks Orpik’s shot. But he provided his teammates with an emotional lift by showing up at Monday’s practice and speaking about his progress.
“I feel a lot better than I did, obviously, after the first couple days,” Crosby said. “I really don’t know what [teeth] I lost or what’s going to be saved … I’ll wait and see how everything heals. It’ll be a process here for the next little bit. I’m not too worried about the teeth; I’m worried about making sure I’m healed, and hopefully that’ll be sooner.”
Crosby said he’d be seeing the doctor this week, and “whenever he feels comfortable that I can go out there and skate and exert, that’s something I’ll wait to hear from him.” He said his diet is still coming courtesy of the blender: “It’s been shakes. It hasn’t been too enjoyable that way, but hopefully this week I’ll be able to start [eating]. It’s pretty much impossible to keep weight right now, so I’ll be excited when I can eat for sure.”
For Crosby’s teammates, it will just have to continue to be business as usual, despite their mounting personnel losses. The Penguins have already clinched their spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they’d like to finish atop the Eastern Conference, where they currently hold a three- and four-point advantage over the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, respectively, both of whom have a game in hand.
“No pressure; we know we [still] have a great team,” Malkin said. “We know all four lines work hard, and now we start getting ready for the playoffs. Just play physical, play smart and play fast.”