With nearly a week off and a three-game losing streak that continued Friday against the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to plunge in the standings.
After the Penguins fell to the New Jersey Devils last weekend, they were just four points behind the Rangers’ division- and conference-leading pace. But New York has since pulled away with a 10-point lead, with 56 points to Pittsburgh’s 46, and the Penguins are suddenly closer to dropping out of the top eight than they are to leading the conference, sitting just two points ahead of the ninth-place Washington Capitals.
Friday, the Penguins continued a season-long trend of struggling against the Eastern Conference’s best teams, dropping to 1-6 against the Rangers (0-2), Boston Bruins (0-1), Florida Panthers (1-1) and Philadelphia Flyers (0-2).
This time, however, with 38 shots to the Rangers’ 21, the Penguins felt they had played their game, especially in the early going, and a few mistakes – including a puckhandling gaffe by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – coupled with a No. 1-star performance Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, were the difference in the 3-1 loss.
“It is frustrating; they’re a good team,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who netted the Penguins’ only goal. “There’s a reason they’re in first place, and I think we played right with them. We had three mistakes and they capitalized, but that’s the type of game we need to play. Obviously we didn’t get the result we wanted, but that’s the effort we need.”
Perhaps of greater concern, the Penguins also continued a trend that’s plagued them for the past two seasons – losing yet another marquee player to what has the potential to be a long-term injury. Center Jordan Staal, who missed the first half of last season with a series of issues resulting from a sliced tendon in his foot, collided knee-to-knee with former Penguin Mike Rupp late in the third period. Staal fell to the ice, writhing in pain, and was not at the Penguins’ optional practice Saturday.
“I’m turning, got my legs out … I’m 6’5, he’s 6’4, we’ve got long legs and sometimes these things happen,” Rupp said. “I hope he’s all right.”
The extent of Staal’s injury remains to be seen, said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma after Saturday’s skate. “At this point in time, it’s too early to tell. Maybe in the next few days, we’ll have an update on what the timetable will be.”
Losing Staal for the long term would be a devastating blow to the Penguins. The 23-year-old pivot was having a fine season, with 21 points (15G, 6A) in 34 games, and logging heavy minutes at even strength and on special teams.
Captain Sidney Crosby also remains out for the foreseeable future as he deals with his latest bout of post-concussion symptoms. Gritty forward Arron Asham is day-to-day with a knee injury. In positive injury news, however, top defenseman Kris Letang, who’s also recovering from a concussion, participated Saturday in his second consecutive morning skate. Defenseman Paul Martin (undisclosed injury) and forward Richard Park (broken foot) returned to the lineup Friday. And forward Dustin Jeffrey returned Saturday for his first skate since his latest rehab following a setback from knee surgery. The 23-year-old forward, who was a point-per-game player in the AHL for the past two seasons, has been dealing with a torn ACL since last February, when then-Flyers forward Jeff Carter fell on his right knee.
“It’s just a matter of managing my injury and making sure we don’t have any setbacks,” Jeffrey said. “I think it’s more conditioning; we did some battling in the corners today, some stuff like that, so I think it’s just a matter of getting back into it, getting ready to play.”
He’s one of several Penguins who knows how tough it is to sit on the sidelines as the team struggles.
“It’s something that can be very frustrating. Obviously, you want to play,” Jeffrey said. “Being around the guys, going to the games and watching them, but not being able to contribute, is frustrating.”
His teammates will try to end the Penguins’ equally frustrating, three-game losing streak Saturday against the New Jersey Devils. And, after the loss to the Rangers, they’re eager to get right back to work.
“There’s always room for improvement, but I think we can take a lot from it,” said forward Chris Kunitz. “We had a great start, really took the momentum for the first five or six minutes; they didn’t have a shot. We just have to keep playing through this, keep playing the same way and, hopefully, we’ll start putting some goals in the net.”
“It’s nice that we don’t have a break and we’re able to go again,” Lovejoy said. “We’re on a skid right now, and we need to put an end to that very soon.”