Ben Lovejoy has not played in 10 of the past 11 games.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The hard part, Ben Lovejoy says, is not trying to decide precisely when to throw his body in front of a shot, to prevent a puck from getting to -- or past -- his goaltender.
It is not having to make a split-second read on how a play will develop, knowing that a bad decision could have even worse consequences.
It is not determining the best way to defend an onrushing forward -- who just might be among the best in the world at what he does -- while realizing that the price of failure might well be severe embarrassment and a goal-against.
No, Lovejoy says, the toughest thing about being a defenseman in the NHL is not being able to do any of that.
"It is," he said, "significantly harder to not play than it is to play."
That's a reality of which Lovejoy has been reminded often in recent weeks.
He is, at least for now, the No. 7 man on a six-member defense unit and has spent 10 of the Penguins' past 11 games in street clothes.
Barring an injury to one of the players ahead of him on the depth chart, Lovejoy likely will be no more than an interested observer again at 7:08 p.m. Wednesday when Anaheim visits Consol Energy Center.
"I obviously would prefer to be in the lineup, but right now we have seven healthy [defensemen] and everybody is playing well," he said. "You don't [dress] seven defensemen."
Not under normal circumstances, anyway, so Lovejoy will have to bide his time until one of the other defensemen gets hurt -- hardly out of the question, since all have missed at least one game this season because of injury -- or suspended, or plays his way into the press box.
"We started playing some better hockey, and this is the group we're going with," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense. He was quick to add, though, that "it's still a competitive situation every night for all seven of our guys."
Lovejoy, however, is the only one who has been in workout clothes or a suit in most recent game.
Consequently, he approaches routine practices with an urgency most of his teammates don't match.
"You have to bring your game focus to practices, because if I don't, I will lose that competitive edge," he said. "I'm out there working hard to not only keep my wind but keep my skills and to stay sharp.
"I felt like I had a very good game the last game I played, when I was called upon, and that's my job right now. I'm not in the lineup every night, and I go stretches where I'm not in at all, and my job right now is to be professional and to be ready and excited to play when my number is called."
Practices do not, as a rule, approach the intensity of games, but Lovejoy pointed out that the Penguins' workouts tend to be up-tempo. Sleepwalking through one of those wouldn't be easy, and that works to the benefit of guys such as Lovejoy, who are trying to keep an edge on their game when they're not in the lineup.
"Even when we're playing every other day, and now that we're in February and the practices are shorter, they're [just] a shorter version of what they were in the past," he said. "You're still out there skating hard, you're still out there executing, but we're doing it for 35 minutes instead of 55 minutes.
"I'm out there for those 35 minutes and everybody's tuned in. You can't go through a Dan Bylsma practice with your brain [turned] off."
Reirden noted that healthy scratches often are responsible for elevating the speed and performance of the entire group during workouts.
"It's always been a part of the hockey culture ... that it's the responsibility of those guys who aren't playing, who are fresh, to push the pace of your practice, especially at this point of the season," he said.
"You rely heavily on guys who aren't playing as many minutes, or guys who aren't playing every night, to really up the execution level and the pace of your practice. Eventually, the guys who are playing a lot will catch up. Every successful team I've been on has that element."
If Lovejoy was with another franchise, he might be making a more tangible contribution. Even so, he doesn't regret tying himself to the Penguins for three seasons with the contract that expires in 2013.
"Not at all," he said. "I love being here in this organization. This is all I know. It's been five years. I've played every game for one of the coaches behind the [Penguins] bench. I've played for Dan, I've played for Todd forever and they've been great to me.
"Right now, I'm not in the lineup but I'm confident that down the line, the Pittsburgh Penguins will need me and I need to be -- and want to be -- ready to go."