They became the three prospects to watch among defensemen during the Penguins' training camp. This week, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy and Nate Guenin became half the team's defense.
Filling in for injured regulars, the three recent call-ups were in the Penguins lineup together for the first time Monday night for a 5-2 win against Anaheim at Mellon Arena. They are expected to be back on the ice tomorrow when the Penguins play at Ottawa.
"We needed them," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We didn't have many options but to throw those guys into the fire against some real good guys."
None of the three are point monsters who have the offensive upside of a few of the injured players they are replacing (Sergei Gonchar, Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang), but Engelland and Lovejoy each picked up an assist against Anaheim.
Engelland, who had a plus-minus rating of plus-3 in that game, made his first NHL point memorable. His lead pass set up Jordan Staal for a breakaway and a game-breaking short-handed goal that gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead.
"They felt good enough to have me out there on the [penalty kill]. I'll take it," Engelland said.
He was the first to get called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and made his NHL debut Nov. 10 at Boston. He was paired with Brooks Orpik, who left that game with an undisclosed injury. In four games, Engelland has one assist, 15 hits and a fight, against Boston's Byron Bitz.
The next to get promoted was Lovejoy, who played in two games with the Penguins last season and has played three games this time. He has two assists and four blocked shots and Monday was placed on the right point on the second power-play unit.
"We got called up to step in and do a job," Lovejoy said. "There's an expectation in this [locker] room to win. We came up and were expected to help our team win."
Guenin, who grew up in Hopewell and played in 12 games with Philadelphia before signing with the Penguins as a free agent in July, had five hits and two blocked shots Monday in his Penguins debut.
Each was paired with a veteran. Engelland skated with Mark Eaton, Lovejoy with Martin Skoula and Guenin with Jay McKee.
They are bunched in age -- Engelland is 25, Guenin 26 and Lovejoy 25 -- and all are listed at 6 feet 2 and between 202 and 215 pounds. Engelland and Guenin play with a little more of an edge, but Lovejoy is the stronger skater.
Engelland and Lovejoy looked particularly comfortable against Anaheim, but they weren't playing their first NHL game of the season, and they had a much longer history with Bylsma than Guenin.
Bylsma worked closely with Engelland and Lovejoy as a Wilkes-Barre assistant in 2007-08 and was their head coach with that American Hockey League team until he was promoted to Penguins head coach in February.
The Penguins over the past few seasons have made a point of using the same systems throughout their organization.
"It's an incredible help," Lovejoy said of knowing the Penguins' system. "When I first got here, I had a meeting with Dan. He told me there's one faceoff play where there's a bit of a nuance from what we do down in Wilkes-Barre. It's one faceoff play, and that's it."
Even Guenin, who only was under Bylsma's direction in training camp before being called up Monday, benefited from learning the system under Wilkes-Barre coach Todd Reirden, a former assistant to Bylsma.
"Everything is the same," Guenin said. "It's awesome because when you get called up and you're put in that situation, you feel comfortable because all the terminology's the same, and it makes the transition that much easier.
"When you're on the ice, you're not questioning what to do. Obviously, the speed picks up, but you're also playing with the best players in the world, so it makes it easier."
That leaves a bigger onus on Bylsma, who admitted it has been difficult for him and his staff to decide how to deploy the revised defensive corps as injuries have accumulated.
"It's tough to say we have continuity, to say this is going to be a matchup pair, or even going into the game to say the amount of minutes they get or may not get," he said.
Going into training camp, Lovejoy seemed to have the best shot at becoming the club's seventh defenseman. A mediocre preseason that was halted by a shoulder injury allowed Engelland and Guenin to catch up, with Engelland having a slight upper hand, Bylsma said. That all became moot when the Penguins signed Skoula just before the season, and all three prospects started in Wilkes-Barre.
Bylsma said it wasn't easy to decide on a pecking order as the Penguins needed to recall defensemen.
"All three are really, really close in terms of the depth chart, and, at times it's about what we need at a given time or who's playing the best down there," he said.
For now, the evaluation will take place much closer to home.
NOTES -- The Penguins, who were given the day off yesterday, reassigned forward Mark Letestu to Wilkes-Barre. He had no points in his first two NHL games. That makes it likely that one of the team's injured forwards -- the best bet is Max Talbot (shoulder) -- will be available to play tomorrow in Ottawa.
For more on the Penguins, read the new Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.