The Penguins are already without their captain and arguably the game’s best player in Sidney Crosby, out six to eight weeks after core muscle surgery, but that might not be the worst of their problems.
Brian Dumoulin, Pittsburgh’s best defensive defenseman, became the latest addition to the long-term injury list after undergoing ankle surgery at Pittsburgh’s UPMC Presbyterian Sunday morning. Dumoulin sustained lacerated tendons when he got tangled up with the Blues’ Zach Sanford on the first shift of the Penguins’ 5-2 loss at St. Louis Saturday night, ending with Sanford coming down hard on Dumoulin’s lower leg.
“It happened in the first shift of the game which makes it tough, because now you’re going with five defensemen all night,” Sullivan said. “I thought they fought hard. I thought we made some fatigue mistakes in the third period that maybe we wouldn’t have made if we had a guy like Dumo. It’s tough when you lose one of our top-pair guys, because he plays so many minutes for us, and so we’re asking guys on a back-to-back night to step up.”
The front end of that back-to-back wasn’t any better, with a 5-2 loss in Columbus where the Penguins came out as flat as they have all season. Perhaps it had something to do with the mental fatigue of yet another major injury, as forward Bryan Rust, elevated to the top line with Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel in Crosby’s absence and playing some of the best hockey of his career, was sidelined earlier that day. Rust was wearing a boot and using crutches after sliding into the boards awkwardly during the team’s morning skate.
Adding to the sheer ridiculousness of the Penguins’ bad luck this season, having a morning skate at all is a rarity for the team these days. Head coach Mike Sullivan held one Friday to help his team shake off the rust, no pun intended, after giving them the day off for Thanksgiving.
Those two very important players join Crosby, third-line forward Nick Bjugstad (out since Nov. 14 with a core injury) and offensive defenseman Justin Schultz (Nov. 19, lower-body injury) on a man-games-lost list that, on Saturday night, reached an even 100. With names like Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang on that list this year, their cumulative quality of players lost surpasses any team in the league, and they’ve likely lost the most points in the standings because of it.
— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) November 28, 2019
Dumoulin’s impact is significant because, unlike Crosby, with a 1A center in Malkin who regularly picks up production in his absence, Pittsburgh doesn’t really have a 1A for Dumoulin. He’s their best defensive defenseman. He’s a rock-solid partner for Letang, allowing that uniquely gifted offensive defenseman to take a few more risks. And he eats minutes – an average of 21:04 per game, second only to Letang – which will shift pressure to players like rookie John Marino, young defensemen like Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Riikola, and veteran Jack Johnson, all of whom are likely better contributors in more limited time.
Although Sullivan acknowledged he’s never seen a run of injuries quite like this – “never this many for this long” – he can’t be concerned with the psychological aspect of it. As it has been all season for this team, it will be a next-player-up mentality, because that’s the way it has to be.
“Quite honestly it’s a useless emotion; it doesn’t serve us well,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to go with the guys we have that are healthy; we think we’re capable and we’ve just got to make sure we play a solid team game. If we do that, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
It would help if they got more from their goaltending which, frankly, hasn’t been good enough. Starter Matt Murray is 9-5-4 this season with a 2.84 goals-against average and .897 save percentage, but his last win came Nov. 9 when the Penguins beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-2, in a shootout. Since then, in six starts, he’s had two losses, three overtime losses and one no-decision, when Tristan Jarry came in to backstop the Penguins’ 8-6, come-from-behind win over Vancouver on Thanksgiving Eve.
Jarry has been the hotter hand of late, with three straight wins going into mop-up duty versus Vancouver, though he also couldn’t save the Penguins from their stinker Friday in Columbus. With two of their top four defensemen out long-term, the goaltending will have to step up.
That would especially help on the penalty kill, where the Penguins have fallen over the past few weeks at an alarming rate. Through Nov. 9, when Crosby left the game versus the Blackhawks, Pittsburgh was No. 3 in the league with an 87.5% success rate. Since Nov. 10, they’re No. 24 at 74.2%.
“I just think everybody’s got to be better,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to keep fighting. We’ve got to rely on one another. I thought for most of the [Blues] game, we played a pretty good game. We had territory; we had scoring chances. We’ve got to fix the penalty kill, because it’s losing games for us right now. Our power play has to be better as well; we had a couple of opportunities [tonight] and we didn’t get the job done in those two scenarios. Our special teams have to improve on both sides; I think that will help our overall game. Five-on-five, for the most part, I thought we had a pretty solid effort.”
When a team is facing this kind of injury toll, “effort” may simply be the key. The Penguins have prided themselves all year on being a hard team to play against, and that’s what they’ll look to draw on now.
“[The St. Louis game was] better than Columbus, but I still think those two games made us learn it doesn’t matter how much talent we have,” Letang said. “Those two teams work really hard, and they get the result.
“I think the recipe that we use all year is paying off so far. When you lose important guys like Sid, Dumo and Schultzy, sometimes you have to simplify your game and try to [win] one-goal games and stuff like that. I think we’ll be fine. We just have to regroup and stick to what we’ve been successful with.”