With Major Dupuis Injury Avoided, Penguins Look for ‘Balance’

At age 35, Pascal Dupuis remains one of the Penguins’ hardest workers. His commitment to conditioning is well-documented, to the point of making sure he loses a single pound each year to allow him to maintain his quickness as he gets older. This summer, he worked even harder to come back from ACL/MCL surgery due to an injury suffered just before Christmas, and the effort showed in a four-point outing in last Thursday’s season opener.

That’s why – although it would have been scary to see any player down on the ice and taken off on a stretcher Thursday, felled by a cross-check, then a freak play that saw Kris Letang’s shot hit the back of his neck – it was especially disheartening to think that it was Dupuis who was lost again, just a week into the new season.

Dupuis went to the hospital for testing after the Penguins’ contest with the Dallas Stars – a 3-2 loss that saw an early, 2-0 Pittsburgh lead evaporate, much like the energy at CONSOL Energy Center after Dupuis’ injury. All head coach Mike Johnston could provide in terms of an update was that Dupuis had some numbness in his arm, which he called “a real positive sign” as feeling was coming back.

So it was surprising, to say the least, to see Dupuis on the ice in warmup gear 12 hours later, skating before the Penguins’ practice on his own, even joking with teammates by reenacting the previous night’s scene in front of the net. As it turned out, Dupuis had even come back to the arena the night before to get his things – “I went [to the hospital] with my equipment,” he said – and talk to his teammates, especially Letang.

The good news continued Saturday, with Dupuis taking his normal spot in the lineup for the team’s morning skate, a game-time decision after being medically cleared to play Saturday night versus the New York Islanders.

“I’m feeling much better than I did coming out of the game, but still a decision we have to make this afternoon with the coach and the trainers,” Dupuis said.

“I kind of got pushed from behind, went down and I knew the puck was coming so I tried to cover myself but left the back of my neck area kind of open,” he said. “I tried to get up and I couldn’t feel my arms. I started shaking my gloves … Geno [Evgeni Malkin] came around and said, ‘Just lay there.’

“Maybe I should’ve got up [after the initial cross-check], but the puck was coming. I tried to cover my face and got it in the neck. It was a weird feeling; it’s never happened to me, never got numb like this. Kind of scary, actually. The muscles and nerves in the neck where the puck hit went numb. It came back slowly but it did come back, and it’s fully back already.”

Dodging the bullet of losing such an important player – on the ice and to their team’s chemistry and character – for an extended time is the type of luck the Penguins haven’t had much of over the past several years.

“I think, when it happened, you didn’t expect to see him back here the next day on the ice,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, Dupuis’ longtime linemate until this season. “Happy to see he’s all right.”

And now the Penguins can focus on something that’s become a theme through the first few games of this young season – finding a balance between offense in Johnston’s high-flying, puck-possession system and making the kinds of mistakes that a team with its own offensive talent will capitalize on.

That’s what happened against Dallas Thursday– when Jamie Benn tied the game with under three minutes remaining and Tyler Seguin won it with under three seconds – and there’s perhaps no team in the league primed to take advantage of those kinds of miscues like the Islanders. They’ve gotten off to a 4-0 start and have the ability to score “goals in bunches,” Crosby said, leading the league with 19 so far behind a top line of Kyle Okposo, John Tavares and Cory Conacher.

“If you look at who we’ve played so far, we’ve had [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry, [Phil] Kessel and [Tyler] Bozak, and then Benn and Seguin,” Johnston said. “The key thing is, when you’re playing a line like that, you recognize their tendencies and you’ve got to be aware of how they play, how they score, how they create and make sure that, defensively, you’re sound.”

“It’s a fine line,” Crosby said. “I think you just have to be smart with the puck, understand the situation and who you’re playing against. We’re given the opportunity to make plays but can’t force things, so I think just finding that balance when you’re trying to find your identity sometimes, it takes tough lessons. Hopefully we can learn those quick.”