With patchwork lineups resulting from 10 players on injured reserve, the Pittsburgh Penguins battled back from big deficits in Florida and Tampa Bay before the Christmas break, falling short by a goal in both efforts but showing plenty of character.
“You don’t like to lose, but we definitely had a lot of things going against us that would’ve made it easy to get ready for Christmas break early,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think guys competed, stuck with it. We didn’t give up and gave ourselves a chance.
“I think at this point we need [the break]. It’s been a tough run here the last month or so; it feels like every game we’re losing somebody. [We’re] hoping to get some guys back after Christmas, get healthy, but just need to make sure we’re competing the same way.”
Hosting the Washington Capitals Saturday, the Penguins did get a couple of bodies back – center Brandon Sutter, who was the only one of a group including forward Steve Downie and goalie Thomas Greiss to test negative for the mumps, and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, returning from an upper-body injury.
But the Penguins’ injury and illness situation finally seemed to catch up with them as the team found it hard to generate much against their Metropolitan Division rival. Eric Fehr’s late first-period goal was all the Capitals would need en route to a 3-0 shutout against a Pittsburgh club that became even more deflated with the loss of top-six forward Patric Hornqvist, who was hit by a shot from teammate Scott Harrington midway through the first period and is expected to miss several weeks.
“A guy like that who plays with energy and how hard he plays, that does have an impact on your group, especially considering the circumstances we’re in,” said head coach Mike Johnston. “We have one line together [to start the game] that actually played together earlier in the year with Sutter, Geno [Malkin] and Hornqvist and, at the end of the period, we don’t have that line anymore.
“It’s challenging, but it’s the same as we’ve faced over the last little while. We’ve got to be able to handle that. That’s what teams go through, and there’s nothing we can do about those.”
Even then, the Penguins found a way to gather themselves and keep the contest close.
“It’s a 1-0 game with 11 minutes left; we were still right there in the game. The shots were even at that time,” Johnston said. “I thought, in the third period, we had a couple chances and we just couldn’t bury one. It would’ve changed the game.”
Johnston said the team is looking to its young lineup – which has seen six AHL players make their NHL debuts this month – for an influx of energy to counteract the mounting setbacks.
“You look at what we have – we have some young guys coming up who have energy, so that brings energy to your group right away,” he said. “We have players on the team who, unfortunately, have been through this before and have had to handle this situation. Certainly there are a lot more of them right now that we’re having to handle and a lot more adversity but, as we all know, it’s going to make you stronger and you’ve got to be able to deal with it.”
The Penguins are also looking to their leaders – specifically Crosby and Malkin – to step up. Malkin has been one of the NHL’s best and most consistent players this season, never going more than a game without a point and racking up 41 of them (16G, 25A) in 35 games to rank fourth in the league. Crosby, however, finds himself slumping after leading the league to start the season; he’s creating chances but, with just two goals in his last 15 games, the captain isn’t finding the net.
“You’ve just got to make sure you keep fighting and go to the right spots; don’t allow bad habits to creep in or change much. The chances are there so, eventually, they’ll go in,” Crosby said. “I don’t think [getting frustrated] really solves anything; I think it just makes it worse, so you’ve got to make sure you go out there and compete, give yourself a chance and trust that the puck will go in the net.”
“It’s a tough time right now, but we still have a good team,” Malkin said. “Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] is playing well. Me and Sid and Kuni [Chris Kunitz] and Tanger [Kris Letang] need to show how we can play, especially in the defensive zone. We can’t score five or six goals every game but, even if we win 1-0, that’s a good win for us, too. We need to play patient and smart.
“It’s not my best but I feel good, I skate well and lots of power. Now maybe it’s time a little bit to take more time to play with the puck and play my game. I want to show my best.”
Despite the three-game losing streak, it’s hardly time for any desperation moves for the Penguins, who remain on top of the Eastern Conference with 49 points, just three behind the league-leading Anaheim Ducks. They’ll try to right the ship Monday in New Jersey, where they’ll face a struggling Devils team – in a building, however, where the Penguins have struggled to find success.
“It’s been a string of a lot of things. But we know we still have a good group in here, and we’ve proven that we can win, even with guys out of the lineup,” Sutter said. “We’ve just got to keep playing well, keep doing what we’re doing.”
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, and we certainly can’t,” Crosby said. “We’ve just got to find a way to hold on while guys are out.”