Penguins' remaining healthy defensemen forced to shoulder larger workload
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
With many defensemen injured for the Penguins, Brian Dumoulin, left, is one of several that has to shoulder a larger workload on the blue line.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Evgeni Malkin doesn’t expect to be in the Penguins lineup at 1:08 p.m. Sunday when Florida visits PPG Paints Arena.
Even though he participated in most of their practice Saturday, Malkin said he still has pain in his shoulder after blocking a shot Monday night in Calgary.
“I feel like I can’t shoot, because there’s pain every time,” he said. “It would be tough to play [Sunday]. Probably not.”
Coach Mike Sullivan said he doesn’t believe Malkin’s injury will be a long-term issue and the Penguins undoubtedly would be thrilled to get him back — he was downright dominant at times before being injured, and was the No. 5 scorer in the NHL going into Saturday — but they might like it even more if Malkin were a defenseman.
Because while being without their No. 2 center is an obvious hardship, having their blue line shredded — three defensemen have been out for extended periods because of injuries — could be an even bigger problem.
Sure, losing Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta (and, now, Ron Hainsey) hasn’t sabotaged their season; the Penguins are on a 6-1-1 roll and on the cusp of clinching the franchise’s 11th consecutive playoff appearance.
But they’re in such a solid position, at least in part, because their remaining healthy defensemen who began the season in the NHL have responded so well to the challenge of playing more — and harder — minutes.
“Anytime you lose so many guys who are so influential to our corps, other guys are asked to step up and do more,” Ian Cole said. “You don’t have [Letang], you don’t have Trevor Daley. Those are big holes to fill in the top four.”
Maatta (hand) will sit out his 15th consecutive game Sunday, while Letang and Daley will miss their 12th in a row because of unspecified injuries. Hainsey will sit out his second.
“This is actually pretty crazy, how many key guys we have out on the back end now,” Justin Schultz said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
He praised the work of call-ups such as Chad Ruhwedel — “The guys who have come in have done a good job” — but established NHLers like Cole, Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and recently acquired Mark Streit are shouldering most of the responsibility on the blue line.
Consider what happens when the Penguins are forced to kill penalties. They were short-handed for six minutes and eight seconds in their 6-4 victory Friday against New Jersey, which translates to 12 minutes and 16 seconds of penalty-killing work for defensemen.
Dumoulin and Cole each handled five minutes and five seconds of that duty, leaving just two minutes and six seconds to split among the other defensemen.
Schultz, whose offensive talents are the cornerstone of his game, didn’t do any penalty-killing against the Devils and is averaging just four seconds of short-handed work per game, but his job also has gotten more demanding lately.
He routinely is being matched against more talented forwards than he has faced for much of his career.
“At this time last year, I was basically just against third- and fourth-liners,” Schultz said. “Now, with the guys we have out, I have to play against top lines.”
While Cole noted the obvious downside of logging major ice time — “You’re certainly more fatigued out there when you’re playing your 25th minute, versus your 18th minute, in the third period” — none of the defensemen are complaining about the extra work.
“I like playing more,” Dumoulin said. “But I don’t like the circumstance.”
NOTE — Right winger Bryan Rust, who will miss his 18th consecutive game because of an unspecified injury, participated Saturday in a workout, but wore a red [no-contact] sweater. Sullivan said there is no timetable for his return, but “we’re really encouraged with where he’s at.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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