Injuries have been a defining — if not defeating — theme for the Penguins. They lead the NHL with 419 man-games lost. Fortunately for them, they continue to lead the Metropolitan Division, and more players have been working their way back than getting injured lately.
Their opponent tonight, Detroit, represents the uglier side of injury implications. The Red Wings rank second in man-games lost, at 323, and their shot at qualifying for the playoffs for the 23rd season in a row is in jeopardy.
“We get someone hurt every day, and they never come back,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock told reporters Tuesday after a 3-2 win against Toronto in which defenseman Jonathan Ericsson got a broken finger that required surgery.
He is the sixth Red Wings player to get hurt since March 6. Detroit has 12 regulars out of the lineup, and that includes marquee names such as team captain Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery, out for the regular season) and center Pavel Datsyuk (knee).
Others who won’t be available tonight include Justin Abdelkader (leg laceration), Darren Helm (concussion) Stephen Weiss (hernia), Daniel Cleary (knee) and Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder).
Forward Joe Vitale has turned up just about everywhere for the Penguins this season. Wing, center and at least a cameo on every line, although the third and fourth lines are his regular habitat.
Consider the past few days:
Sunday against Philadelphia, he filled in for James Neal on right wing on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Jussi Jokinen.
Tuesday morning, with Neal on the verge of returning from a concussion and working in his regular spot at the morning skate, Vitale was not a part of line rushes. But he was in the lineup that night against Dallas, playing wing on the third line with Marcel Goc and Brian Gibbons.
Earlier this season, he saw some spot duty on the top line centered by Sidney Crosby.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned so far is to just play your game to the very best of your ability,” Vitale said. “These players are professionals, and they learn to adjust their game off of you.
“Whenever you can get a chance to play [as a top-six forward] with special players, you embrace the opportunity.”
Vitale has a goal and 13 assists, equaling his career high for a season with 14 points.
Back to his usual spot
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said earlier this week that using Deryk Engelland at forward most likely is a tactic that has run its course with the addition of a couple of forwards at the trade deadline and others coming back from injury.
Engelland, a rugged defenseman by trade and training, wasn’t discouraged to hear that.
“That’s fine with me,” he said. “I’d rather play [defense]. I’ve said that all year. Playing forward is definitely better than sitting out, and whatever we need, I’m willing to do. But I’m more comfortable and would rather play [defense] for sure.”
Engelland has 11 points, including a career-high six goals, playing in just 49 games. He has scored playing right wing on the fourth line and as a defenseman.
Tuesday, his defenseman-only status hit home. He was a healthy scratch for a game against the Stars.
While he would rather play — and do it on defense — Engelland drew a lot of praise from teammates for morphing into a tough, responsible fourth-line right winger at times.
“No matter what situation you’re in, you’re going to try to succeed and do the best you can and learn from the experience,” Engelland said.
If the Penguins were to find themselves in a pinch and needed him at forward again, he would be game.
“Yeah, you never know what will happen,” Engelland said.
Megna back to the minors
The Penguins reassigned forward Jayson Megna to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He was called up Friday and played in both weekend games against Philadelphia, recording a goal, but was a healthy scratch Tuesday because the Penguins got back a couple of forwards who had been hurt.
In 26 NHL games this season, Megna has five goals and three assists.
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.