Penguins notebook: Cross-state replacements fill their roles so far

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The concept, basically, is next man up.

Means that if someone is injured, a guy behind him on the depth chart is supposed to fill the void.

A great idea, in theory. In practice, it doesn't always work so well.

The Penguins, though, have pulled it off through the early part of the 2013-14 season. Probably even better than they could have hoped.

They enter their game against Columbus tonight with a 20-10-1 record, good for a share of first place in the Eastern Conference and a comfortable lead in the Metropolitan Division before Sunday night's games.

And they've done it despite losing 138 man-games to injury the first two-plus months of the season, an average of 4.45 per game. That's up from 1.7 last season.

It's not the quantity of injuries they've absorbed that's most striking, however. It's the quality of players who have gotten hurt, with top-pairing defenseman Brooks Orpik the latest addition to the list.

The injuries he sustained when attacked -- and knocked unconscious -- by Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton in a 3-2 loss Saturday night at TD Garden still are being evaluated, and no target date for his return to the lineup has been announced.

Because of Orpik's injury, the Penguins are expected to recall defenseman Brian Dumoulin from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

Orpik certainly won't be the first high-profile Penguin to suffer a lost-time injury this season.

Evgeni Malkin missed the past two games. Paul Martin has sat out the past half-dozen. Rob Scuderi has been in street clothes for 20 in a row. James Neal missed 15. Beau Bennett hasn't played in eight. Kris Letang didn't dress for nine.

The Penguins, it should be noted, probably won't get much sympathy from the Blue Jackets, whose man-games lost total has reached triple figures and who are playing without No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (groin), high-scoring winger Marian Gaborik (knee) and top-four defenseman James Wisniewski (unspecified).

Because of all of the Penguins' injuries, no fewer than seven players -- forwards Jayson Megna, Brian Gibbons, Chris Conner, Andrew Ebbett, Zach Sill and Harry Zolnierczyk and defenseman Simon Despres -- who opened the season in Wilkes-Barre made their way across the Commonwealth before Dumoulin.

Most have made a meaningful contribution.

"The guys who've come in have been playing well, and that's what's important," center Brandon Sutter said. "They've played well and helped us win."

It is not that, say, Sill can seamlessly fill in for Malkin, or that Conner can take on the offensive burden usually carried by Neal.

The idea is for a recalled player to chip in what he can, to execute the responsibilities he is given.

"That's part of professional sports, giving someone else an opportunity to go out and show what he can do," said left winger Chris Kunitz, one of eight Penguins to dress for all 31 games this season. "A lot of guys flourish with that opportunity.

"You're never going to replace some of the guys. You just go out and play your position, play your role. We've had numerous guys come up and play key minutes, have key roles."

Ironically, though, Orpik acknowledged hours before the Boston game that the Penguins might not be able to continue to win so consistently if they continue to lose prominent players to injury.

"The young guys have done a great job, but the league is so competitive that it probably catches up with you at some point," he said. "But I think we're probably getting some of these guys back, hopefully, in the near future."

It remains to be seen whether Orpik will be one of them.

Neal's status

Neal will have a phone hearing today with Brendan Shanahan, who handles supplemental discipline for the league, to discuss Neal kneeing Boston's Brad Marchand in the head while skating past him.

Per league policy, Neal will learn before the Blue Jackets game what, if any, punishment he will receive.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Neal "didn't really make an attempt to get out of the way" before making contact with Marchand.

Tip-ins

Thornton has been offered an in-person hearing with Shanahan for his attack on Orpik, which means he will be eligible -- though not guaranteed -- to receive a suspension of six or more games. ... Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu, a former Penguin, does not have a goal in 27 games. He has not scored since Oct. 5 against the New York Islanders. ... The Penguins had a scheduled day off Sunday.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.

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