Penguins defenseman Simon Despres is one of the fill-ins playing well in wake of injuries.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Olli Maatta, who is Finnish, and Simon Despres, who is French-Canadian, learned a new English word this week.
"Tradition?" Maatta asked, confusing the two words.
No, it hasn't quite reached that point with the Penguins defensemen, but having members of that group drop out because of injury has been a recurring situation.
Three of the team's top four defensemen are hurt: Paul Martin (broken leg), Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) and Brooks Orpik (concussion). The other top defenseman, Kris Letang, missed the first nine games this season because of a knee injury.
The Penguins, though, have not allowed the injuries to curtail what has been a strong season (21-10-1).
Maatta, 19, Despres, 23, and others are playing bigger roles and more minutes and appear to be doing it well, with the help of strong goaltending.
While the Penguins have been up and down in the shots they have allowed in the past seven games with at least two of those big three out -- from a low of 21, twice, to as many as 45 -- they have given up an average of just 1.86 goals a game in that stretch.
Most important, they are 6-1 in those games.
"We get a chance to showcase what we can do in the NHL," Despres said of the defensemen left standing. "If we keep winning, everyone looks better, so we've got to keep winning."
The most likely to be the first of the injured trio to return is Scuderi, who has been skating and apparently is close to rejoining practice. But it seems farfetched to think he will be back by Friday, when the New Jersey Devils visit Consol Energy Center.
Martin is expected to be out past Christmas, and there is no timetable for Orpik.
"It's not an ideal situation we have with those guys hurt, but you can't do anything about that," Maatta said. "All you can do is play your best. Guys get hurt, and somebody's got to step up. I feel like we have a lot of guys that have done that. We've got to keep doing it."
Maatta and Matt Niskanen are the only defensemen who have played in all 32 Penguins games. Despres began the season in the American Hockey League but has played in all seven games since his recall.
The most recent configurations have Maatta paired with Letang, Niskanen with Deryk Engelland and Despres with Robert Bortuzzo.
"I feel like we're prepared pretty well, but you can't know that this is going to happen -- so many [defensemen] are going to get hurt," Maatta said.
"It's just so unlucky. But we're fortunate we have so many good defensemen in this organization."
Maatta is getting a ton of on-the-job training.
"I'm getting more [penalty-killing] time, power-play time. And five-and-five, playing a lot," he said. "That's the best practice you can get. There's nothing better than playing a lot."
Engelland and Bortuzzo have been healthy scratches at times, but with only seven healthy defensemen on the roster -- rookie Brian Dumoulin was a healthy scratch Monday against Columbus after his recall from the AHL -- their time and responsibilities are increasing.
It's the same with the reigning veterans among the healthy defensemen, Letang and Niskanen.
Saturday, when Orpik got hurt in the first period in an incident with Boston's Shawn Thornton, Letang played a whopping 31 minutes, 18 seconds.
"It was exceptional ... because we were at five [defensemen]," said Letang, who was down to a more reasonable, but still game-high, 26:44 Monday in the 2-1 win against Columbus.
"It's not an issue. It's just a question of managing your minutes, making sure you don't join every rush and [then] try to get back in the play and lose a lot of energy in that regard."
Niskanen played 25:44 against Boston. It was down to 22:38 against the Blue Jackets, which was still his third-most ice time this season.
"During the game you're just out there competing," Niskanen said. "I certainly haven't, and I've never known a player to, deny a shift. They keep throwing you out there, you go compete and keep [shifts] short if you have to.
"I enjoy the opportunity."
Not showing up on the score sheets is the enhanced role Letang and Niskanen have absorbed in leadership.
Orpik, Martin and Scuderi are all at least 32 and have played a combined 1,865 NHL games.
"A little bit of a leadership thing as far as from the back end. By default, really," Niskanen, 27, said, smiling.
"I've been here a while. I'm one of the more experienced guys now. I might have to talk a little bit more or whatever, lead from the back end. Besides that, I don't change a whole lot.
"I'm aware of the situation -- more minutes against better players -- but my approach doesn't change a whole lot."
Letang, 26, agreed with that last sentiment.
"There's no point in doing more or changing the way you are," Letang said. "You just have to play the same way, and things will take care of themselves."
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