Pens Face Daunting Challenge with Loss of Dupuis

Heading into the Christmas break, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was without four of his top six defensemen – with a 19-year-old rookie, Olli Maatta, as one of the remaining two. Evgeni Malkin, his Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning center, had missed the last five games with a lower-body injury. Even the call-ups from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton started to need call-ups, as forwards Jayson Megna and Andrew Ebbett – brought in to replace injured forwards including 2010 first-round draft pick Beau Bennett and gritty fourth-liner Tanner Glass – went on long-term IR.

And that’s not even counting the team’s recent five-game suspensions to star forward James Neal and physical defenseman Deryk Engelland, or the blood clot that derailed backup netminder Tomas Vokoun’s season before it even began.

“I’m pretty sure shaking my head doesn’t do any good,” Bylsma said. “It seems like an awful lot.”

Against long odds, the Penguins have just kept winning, prevailing in 12 of their last 13 before a 5-0 letdown in Ottawa before the break. In that contest, however, Bylsma and the Penguins suffered what will likely be their most daunting injury challenge as first-line winger Pascal Dupuis sustained a torn ACL that will require surgery and likely end his season.

The freak injury occurred when Dupuis’ longtime linemate, captain Sidney Crosby, took a low hipcheck from Senators defenseman Marc Methot. Crosby tumbled into the air, coming down on Dupuis’ knee and narrowly avoiding slicing him from the neck up with his skate blades. Crosby also left the ice briefly, but was able to return to the game.

“He almost blew my knee out, so it was pretty low,” Crosby said. “I don’t know if it was right above my knee or by my hip; I just know it was awfully close.”

Not only does the 34-year-old Dupuis fill a variety of roles for the Penguins – including a top spot on the clubs’ second-ranked penalty kill – but his style, speed and chemistry with Crosby have made him a rare fit with one of the league’s top players and played a key role in earning him a four-year, $15-million contract last summer.

“Pascal’s gone under the radar in terms of what he brings to the team in a lot of cases,” Bylsma said. “[Since being acquired in 2008], he’s played with a lot of different people and in a lot of different situations. He’s played on a checking line; played next to Crosby, obviously, for a good period of time. [He’s] a big penalty killer guy for our team and a big speed part of our team and how we play. He’s also been a big part in the dressing room as well. It’s a lot that he brings.”

The Penguins must now assess their options for replacing one of their least replaceable parts. Friday in Carolina, forward Joe Vitale moved up from the bottom six into Dupuis’ spot alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz to start the game, and Neal also spent time there to stack Pittsburgh’s top line with its biggest scoring threats. Bennett is only halfway through an eight-to-10-week recovery but is a candidate for that spot when he returns, or the Penguins could look at dealing one of the minor-league assets who have stepped up so admirably for immediate help.

They’re also starting to get help from within as injured players trickle back into the lineup, including two of their top four blueliners. Defenseman Brooks Orpik (concussion) and forward Glass (broken hand) rejoined the team Friday. Defenseman Rob Scuderi (fractured ankle) is ready to return Sunday at Columbus. Malkin (lower body) is practicing with the team as he waits for to be cleared for contact, and defenseman Kris Letang (elbow infection surgery) has started to skate back in Pittsburgh.

“It’s a long time off,” Scuderi said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a good role on defense before I was hurt, and [when] you see the team doing well, it’s great, but there’s also a part of you that wants to get your job back and wants to earn that ice back. I’m definitely eager to put myself into those situations and to do well.”

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