When the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday, they’ll be welcoming one regular back to their depleted lineup as winger Matt Cooke returns from a four-game suspension.
Of course, because it’s simply the way Pittsburgh’s luck has gone of late, that step forward comes with another step back as forward Nick Johnson left Friday’s practice and is day-to-day with an upper body injury. The 25-year-old Johnson, one of many recent call-ups from the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, has been a bright spot in his four games with the big club, showing speed and recording three points (1G, 2A). Winger Tim Wallace, sent down Thursday and pointless in four NHL games this season so far, was called back up Saturday to replace him.
Indeed, most of the Penguins’ reasons for optimism lately have been tempered with a cause for concern. Injured forwards Chris Kunitz and Mark Letestu skated Friday after practice with the team’s strength and conditioning coach – Saturday, Dustin Jeffrey joined them – but head coach Dan Bylsma revealed that winger Arron Asham, previously described as day-to-day with an upper body injury, has concussion symptoms and hasn’t yet progressed to exercise.
Star center Evgeni Malkin was at the team’s practice facility Friday and is one week into six months of rehab for his surgically repaired knee, but there’s still no update on whether captain Sidney Crosby will make it back from his concussion this season or join Malkin on the shelf until next year.
Between Asham, Crosby and Eric Tangradi, blindsided by Trevor Gillies in a February 11 slugfest with the New York Islanders, the Penguins now have three players dealing with head injuries, with none of them on any timeframe to return.
“I don’t like talking about injures to begin with because I’m a layperson, and I feel even more so when it comes to concussions,” Bylsma said. “It’s just different with every person – different symptoms, different types of progression for the player – and that is totally up to the doctor.”
So, for now, the Penguins will take the positives where they can get them, starting with the return of an NHL regular in the gritty, controversial Cooke, suspended for four games after his hit from behind on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin back on February 8.
“It’s one thing to have the frustration of being hurt or injured and not being able to play, but [worse] to physically be able to be out there and you just can’t,” Cooke said.
Pittsburgh can also be pleased with how its players have responded to what has been a truly head-shaking amount of adversity. With a lineup of forwards that has sometimes been exactly half comprised of players who started the year in the AHL, the Penguins have been consistent enough to remain in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 76 points.
In fact, if the standings went by straight points, they’d be second, five behind Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia.
“The things that this group’s had to overcome over the last week is pretty amazing,” Cooke said. “I think we ‘re doing better than OK. It’s a credit to the organization, the management and coaching staff – not only here, but also in Wilkes-Barre – to stay on the same page and develop guys to be able to be ready to come in and play. Kudos to the young guys coming in, stepping up and playing big minutes in big roles.”
One of those young guys, 25-year-old Joe Vitale, opened the scoring in Pittsburgh’s 3-2, overtime win Wednesday at Colorado. Another, 26-year-old Brett Sterling, is on a point-per-game pace with four (2G, 2A) in four NHL games so far. The Penguins credit their success to opportunity, work ethic and the shared system played at all levels of the organization.
“When Joe gets that goal in Colorado, you see his speed, you see his ability, you see his shot, but you also see the fact that he knew exactly what to do within our system to be in that position,” Bylsma said. “That’s a credit to Joe, it’s a credit to the coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre, and it’s also the expectation of coming in and stepping in with how we’re going to play.
“[With Sterling], the thing not to be overlooked is not just the fact that he’s got a point a game, but how he’s got it. The battle level and tenacity with which he’s played, the work ethic in the corners and on pucks … despite his diminutive [5-foot-7] size … that’s really been the big part of how he’s played. It’s allowed him to get some more opportunities, some more ice time and continued opportunity on the power play for him to cash in, which he’s made good on.”
The Penguins will be looking for plenty more of that from the newest members of their lineup as they prepare to play three games in the next four days, five by the end of the week. The stretch will start with two good tests – Monday at home against the rival Washington Capitals, who embarrassed Pittsburgh a week ago in a nationally televised, 3-0 shutout and, before that, Sunday’s contest at the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“Any time you play the defending champions, you want to prove that you can be in their spot; you want to beat them,” said defenseman Zbynek Michalek. “Even though they lost a lot of players in the summer, they’re still a good team. And it’s a tough building to play at; it’s a fun building and a loud building and they have great fans. They’re going to play hard because they’re a desperate team right now. They’re fighting for playoff position.”
Much like the Penguins, who – if they can keep treading water until their injured players begin coming back to the lineup – stand to be in better position than they probably have the right to expect.
“[I’ve never seen] this many players [out], but I think we’re doing well for the guys that are in the lineup,” said forward Tyler Kennedy. “We have faith in each other and we’re playing well together.”