James Neal, seen here scoring on Martin Brodeur last season, broke his foot and will miss an extended period of time.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are some impressive stats associated with the first half of the Penguins' season.
James Neal's goal total.
Evgeni Malkin's point total.
Matt Cooke's penalty-minutes total. (It has reached double-figures. Barely.) But the number that best defines the first half of their season, which ends when Ottawa visits Consol Energy Center tonight, is their man-games lost total, which has reached 210.
Matchup: Ottawa Senators at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Brent Johnson for Penguins. Craig Anderson for Senators.
Penguins: Have lost three consecutive home games after winning previous three. ... D Paul Martin needs Atwo points for 200 in NHL. ... Have been outshot just 11 times in first 40 games.
Senators: Are 8-7-5 on road, including 6-3 loss to Penguins Nov. 25. ... C Jason Spezza has 17 points in past 15 games. ... Have scored NHL-best 61 goals in third period.
Hidden stat: Senators have won league-high six games when trailing after two periods.
And is rising. Fast.
For the second season in a row, it is injuries -- not how productive their top lines are or how they fare on special teams or whether Marc-Andre Fleury comes through with game-saving stops -- that are having the greatest impact on how things play out for the Penguins.
Injuries, of course, are part of the game. Guys get hit by pucks and punches and sticks. They slam awkwardly into the boards. Their skates get caught in ruts.
No team is immune to injuries, or ever will be.
But not many have to try to overcome losing as many impact players for extended periods as the Penguins have since the start of 2010-11.
Their best forward and defenseman, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, have combined to sit out 50 games so far, and the chances of either showing up in a game anytime soon are dwarfed by those of Columbus going on a 16-0 run in this spring's playoffs.
What's more, the Penguins will be without their leading goal-scorer, Neal, and an excellent two-way center, Jordan Staal, for long periods because of injuries in weekend games. Craig Adams, an effective blue-collar forward, subsequently aggravated a knee problem in a collision in Sunday's practice.
It would be difficult to overstate the effect injuries have had on the season to date, and on the season-worst four-game losing streak the Penguins will take into the Ottawa game. Nonetheless, it is something on which they insist they are not dwelling.
"This is professional hockey," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "We play 82 games. It's a very physical sport. We've been unlucky with a couple [of injuries], but every team goes through it. Every team is missing top guys and role players. You can't think about that."
When their lineup is intact, the Penguins are as good as any team in the NHL, and significantly better than most. That has only happened for a handful of games this season, though, and there's no guarantee of when, if ever, it will again.
The Penguins, though, can't afford to daydream about having their team of choice together. Not when they have skidded to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff field.
"No matter who we have in this dressing room, we've got to play our style and start getting some wins," said right winger Arron Asham, who is scheduled to rejoin the lineup tonight after sitting out two games. "We're slowly slipping out of the playoff picture. We can't let that happen."
The Senators are one of several teams to hurdle the Penguins in the Eastern standings lately and are on a 5-0-1 roll after taking three of a possible four points from Philadelphia over the weekend.
This game tonight is a potential firewall for the Penguins, who will kick off a three-game road trip Wednesday with a visit to Washington. Lose to Ottawa and the Penguins could be in real danger of going into a protracted spiral through the standings.
"I think it's a game we have to win," Lovejoy said. "We're not satisfied with the result we've gotten the last four games.
"This Senators team has been hot of late. They're coming on, and they're a good young team. They beat us pretty badly last game (6-4, Dec. 16 in Ottawa).
"We're a desperate team right now. It will be a game where we're going to show up and see what kind of guys we have in the room."
For much of the first half of 2011-12, the Penguins were on most short lists of the NHL's top clubs. At the moment, though, they look to be, at most, nothing more than a standard-issue playoff contender.
"I don't think we look at half-seasons," Cooke said. "We're focused on [tonight's] game. It can't be any bigger than that, and it can't be any smaller than that.
"The situation we're given right now is, we have to be focused on the next task at hand. We've been there before, we've done it before and there's confidence within this group that, with that approach, we'll do it again."