The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a truly remarkable run of injuries since the start of 2011, both in sheer number – they’re now down by nine forwards – and in the fact that their defensemen have remained largely unscathed.
The law of averages dictated that the latter was bound to change eventually.
Sunday, first-year Penguin Paul Martin suffered an upper-body injury after a hit from Chicago’s Patrick Sharp and has been day-to-day since then. He expects to return sometime during Pittsburgh’s five-game road trip.
But the news isn’t nearly so good for fellow blueliner Brooks Orpik. After blocking a shot from San Jose’s Patrick Marleau in a heartbreaker of a 3-2, overtime loss to the Sharks Wednesday, Orpik will be sidelined for 4-6 weeks with a broken finger, leaving Pittsburgh without its most physical defenseman for most of the rest of the regular season.
How much more can this team withstand and still expect to compete with quality opponents?
“We’re going to show you,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “When Brooks did not come back [after the first period], we fully planned on going out and winning that darned game. A little disappointing not getting the win, but we have every intention of going out and playing a certain way and playing to get more wins, starting [Friday] in Carolina.”
“It’s been crazy, no question,” said forward Jordan Staal. “It’s something that, obviously, you can’t explain; we’ve been hit pretty hard. It’s tough to see those guys go out when our D core has been pretty solid all year long.
“It’s just a matter of other guys stepping into bigger roles and playing bigger minutes, and it doesn’t mean our D core has to change their game because Brooks is out. Every player’s going to play the same way they have been, and we’ll deal with whatever happens from there.”
Problem is, although the players have been committed to playing the Penguins’ system and working hard doing it, they’re not getting the results. Pittsburgh has now dropped seven of its last nine contests and come out on the wrong end of three consecutive, one-goal games.
New acquisition James Neal should make a difference in some of those games going forward, especially as he becomes more comfortable with Pittsburgh’s style of play. And, Thursday, GM Ray Shero added another player with the potential to rack up a few points.
Alex Kovalev, acquired from Ottawa in exchange for a conditional, seventh-round draft pick, will have to acclimate himself to the Penguins’ system, but not to Pittsburgh. The 38-year-old Russian may be enigmatic, but there’s no denying that he had some fine years in his first stint as a Penguin, scoring 149 goals and 347 points between 1998 and 2003.
“Where our team is right now, with the injuries that we have, we’ve talked about the need to add some skill to our lineup. And for the cost, in terms of assets, we thought it was worth the risk,” Shero said. “We’re hoping he’ll get back to playing some of his better hockey here. You can see what we’re missing on the ice with some of these guys [out], so we’re hoping that, in the short term, he’ll be energized. When I talked to him this afternoon, he was very, very excited to be coming back to Pittsburgh.”
Kovalev brings puckhandling skill, which could help the Penguins settle things down on the power play, Shero said.
“I would anticipate him, with what we’re missing on the half wall on the power play without [Evgeni] Malkin and [Sidney] Crosby, up high, he’s a guy who can create some offense and open things up, because he’s got the hands and patience with the puck. He still has that, he can still shoot it. We’ve got guys that have a good net-front presence on the power play and, certainly, to get a guy who can handle the puck and make some plays, he’ll be a nice addition for us.”
The Penguins have two games over the next two days – Friday at Carolina and Saturday at Toronto – and they expect some of their injured players to start making their way back into the lineup. Rookie standouts Dustin Jeffrey and Mark Letestu should be back soon, with Jeffrey a possibility as early as Friday. Martin should be back by next week, and forward Chris Kunitz is a week or two away.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Shero is done trying to make his club better before Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, especially when the Penguins’ injury situation seems to change by the day. “We are getting guys closer but, as we’ve seen, as soon as we play a game we lose another guy, usually,” he said.
But it doesn’t mean that he’ll feel pressured into making a move or giving up too much, either.
“You never say never, but that’s not what I’m looking to do. I’m not sure if there’s a player out there that will make me give up a first-round draft pick or a top prospect. We are happy with our group here, and I envision this group going forward to next year with the addition of James Neal and getting Crosby and Malkin back and Staal, that type of lineup.
“I think we’re just looking for little, incremental changes, if we can make those, to round off our lineup. But, if not, we are going to go with the group we have.”