After going 1-5-1 over the past two weeks, the Pittsburgh Penguins got the best news possible Saturday when they learned Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, two of their most important offensive players, were ready to return to the lineup.
“It’s not fun” to watch from the sidelines, Malkin said, especially with the team struggling. “We play so bad right now, and it’s not just one guy; it’s the whole team. I hope I come back, Horny comes back and we should start playing better. Listen to the coach and play better power play. Every game is important right now. We have 91 points; it’s not enough for playoffs.”
“We’re going through some tough times right now; we can’t really score,” Hornqvist said. “But we have a great group of guys in here and we know we can pull it together. [It’s time] for us to show each other what we’re made of and have a good stretch here.”
The optimism of having a mostly healthy lineup for a change took a small hit shortly before Saturday’s matinee with the Arizona Coyotes, when the Penguins learned top-line winger David Perron was out with an illness. But that paled in comparison to the hit it would take late in the second period, when defenseman Kris Letang had to be helped off the ice after Arizona captain Shane Doan sent him hard into the boards.
Letang, who has a history of concussions along with suffering a stroke last year, spent the night in the hospital for observation. Sunday morning, head coach Mike Johnston confirmed that the 27-year-old blueliner, in the midst of a Norris Trophy-caliber season, had sustained another concussion and is out indefinitely.
“It was just him going back and such a distance from the boards and, when he landed and his head snapped against the boards, that was the main impact of the injury,” said Johnston, who was coaching under challenging conditions of his own following the death of his mother in Nova Scotia. “We’ll see how he feels over the next couple days and go from there.”
Add that to a defensive corps that’s already missing Christian Ehrhoff – out with an unspecified upper-body injury the team says is unrelated to the concussion that sidelined him before that – and Olli Maatta for the rest of the season after shoulder surgery, and things are not exactly where the Penguins would like them to be with just over two weeks to go before the playoffs.
Because the team is up against the salary cap, they can’t fill those roster spots with minor-league players unless they were to put Ehrhoff or Letang on long-term injured reserve, an option that is unavailable to them with fewer than 10 games remaining in the regular season. That means they’ll go with five defensemen for now – something to which they’ve grown accustomed of late.
“In the last month, because of an injury early in the game or somebody [becoming] sick before the game starts, we’ve played with five defensemen plenty of times on those occasions,” Johnston said. “Obviously, they’ve got to manage their minutes, [but] we want to play the same style, the same way we always play. We don’t want to change and sit back in any way with our defense.”
If one of his five defensemen would suddenly become unavailable, Johnston would look to a defensive-minded forward, specifically his penalty-killers, in an emergency. Daniel Winnik, who’s played some defense in the past, would be a logical candidate.
There will be no supplemental disciple for Doan, a respected player and captain whom even the Penguins felt was just finishing his check on the last player to have the puck.
“Doaner’s not like that; he’s not going to take dirty hits or dirty runs on guys,” said Penguins forward Steve Downie. “I didn’t think it was that dirty. I think [Letang] fell the wrong way, [with] the distance from the boards and everything. But, at the end of the day, we’re down Tanger; that’s what hurts the most.”
Doan did, however, accept Downie’s invitation to fight shortly after the incident. “I’ve got nothing but respect for Doaner,” Downie said. “He did the right thing. That’s hockey right there.”
It’s also part of hockey to deal with adversity, and the Penguins – who have dealt with plenty of it all season – won’t be getting a reprieve anytime soon.
“We still have to find a way to play the right way every night,” Hornqvist said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in or who’s out. We have a good group of guys and, if we do that, we know we can be successful.”
“I don’t think anyone has doubted our abilities as a team,” Winnik said. “We were banged up, and we’re banged up again now, but guys have stepped up and played well, and I think we’ve got the confidence that we can do well in the playoffs. I think it’s better timing now to have a slump than in a couple weeks.”