Despite man games lost to injury the Penguins March on
When the Pittsburgh Penguins started the season they had virtually stayed the same team they had battled with through the playoffs. The offseason brought the departure of injury-prone forward Beau Bennett to New Jersey and the end of the Defensive stint Lovejoy had with the team. Accompanied with Jeff Zatkoff’s farewell to chants of ‘Mr. Game One’ the stillness of Rutherford’s deals only showed confidence in his past self. It was confidence that was not misplaced since they had captured the ultimate prize with such a roster the previous season. Along with the Stanley Cup Championship came The General Manager of the Year award to solidify Rutherford’s validated moves within the roster.
The fact was that Rutherford had made a promise to the city of Pittsburgh that sunny afternoon in front of the thousands attending the Stanley Cup Parade: “See you here next year”. It was subtle, but every Pittsburgh fan knew what was left between the lines and waited to watch it all unfold. It was obviously a hard promise to keep, after all, the NHL hasn’t had a repeat Stanley Cup Champion since Detroit in ’97-’98. Most teams that win the Stanley Cup find it hard to keep the team virtually intact and even then there’s always that injury gnome running around the locker room. Pittsburgh has had the unfortunate luck to know such a character very well, usually occupying a high slot in the ‘man-games lost’ column the Penguins were hoping to shake their luck this year.
With the start of the season came the first hits to the roster, like an omen of things that would slowly unfold in the duration of the season. Matt Murray was out of the lineup nursing a broken thumb due to his participation in the World Cup, but more concerning was the absence of Sidney Crosby due to yet another concussion. The Captain for the Penguins missed six games in which the Penguins had a record of 2 regulation wins, 1 Shootout win and 3 loses. In Crosby’s absence forwards Evgeni Malkin and Connor Sheary found a rhythm, while defensemen Trevor Daley and Kris Letang proved their offensive prowess is as good as their defense. On goal Marc-Andre Fleury got Tristan Jarry as a backup while Matt Murray was sidelined for ten games; it would be the first of two more injuries he would suffer up to this point in the season. Murray stopped 32 shots in a 5-1 Pens victory for his first start of the season against Anaheim marking the way of a steady rookie season. While in his first game back Crosby scored a power play goal, and from then on he’s kept pace with the league leading goal scorers to compete for the scoring title.
Since then there have been a plethora of injuries plaguing the team. Some are quick to bounce back from what’s plaguing them while others are not so lucky. While not leading the league with most man games lost, -an honor reserved for the Canucks- Pittsburgh has lost 208 games to injury up to last night. What appears more staggering are the players who have been sidelined and their contributions to the team. Kris Letang, for example, was a crucial part of the Stanley Cup Run averaging 34 minutes a night while contributing with 3 goals, 12 assist and 15 points including the Stanley Cup winning goal against the San Jose Sharks. Letang’s injuries throughout the season have forced defensemen like Justin Shultz and Brian Dumoulin to step up in terms of ice time and intensity, but with the defensive corps continuing to decimate it was only a matter of time before Rutherford looked for outside help.
By the time the Trade Deadline approached the Penguins defensively had lost Trevor Daley at a time where Olli Maatta was out recovering from hand surgery and Justin Schultz had been diagnosed with a concussion. Outside of the blue line, there were a number of faces missing from the line-up at this point like forwards Brian Rust and Connor Sheary, while Carl Hagelin had recently made his way back on the ice. It was a revolving door of call-ups and line shifts to counteract the injury gnome that seems now to be an integral part of Penguins hockey. With numbers like Sidney Crosby’s 1,000 career points and Letang ranking fourth amongst defensemen in points per game, it was easy to see how the club was keeping themselves in the winning column despite the injuries. However, when the defense struggled in a 5-2 loss to Detroit, it became evident that the defense needed a bit more help than WBS could give the NHL team.
On February 23rd Rutherford made the first of a series of smart moves with the acquisition of Ron Hainsey from the Carolina Hurricanes. It was the same day that Letang was confirmed injured with an upper-body injury, in what seemed like the exclamation mark to the move. Ron Hainsey put forward a solid debut in a Penguins jersey, as the Pens edged a victory over their rival Flyers in the Stadium Series 4-2. Ever the cunning man, Rutherford saw something he liked during the match because only four days later at the deadline he acquired another veteran defenseman in Mark Streit from Tampa Bay Lightning. In a three-way deal that avoided dealing with the Flyers directly but also freed cap space when the former teams retained salary Rutherford was solidifying his General Manager of the Year award. In another surprising move, Rutherford also pulled the trigger on a deal which would send Eric Fehr to the Maple Leafs in exchange for defensive rookie Frank Corrado.
The leadership of Mike Sullivan is a testament to the major reason why the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. With an injury list including the likes of Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta, Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, Ron Hainsey, Evgeni Malkin, Tom Sestito and Jake Guentzel as of last night, it is incredible to think that the Penguins are in a tightly contested race for first place in the Metropolitan Division. The big reasoning behind this besides their coach’s methods of rehabilitation of his injured players is also the fact that the players coming from WBS are making a real solid impact on the team.
The Kids Are Alright
It’s no secret that depth wins championships, it’s the reason why there are guys like Justin Schultz, Frank Corrado, Curtis Lazar and to an extent last year Johnathan Drouin are in the league. These young guys tearing the AHL or riding the 4th lines or sometimes even healthy scratches are there as the safety net for rosters around the league. Last year in the playoff series against Tampa, the Penguins first hand saw that Drouin was that kind of guy for the Florida team in Stamkos’ absence. The Penguins themselves were developing a supporting cast for their stars, and it has developed well into this season making them stars of their own to the Pittsburgh faithful.
On the absolute destruction of the Pittsburgh defensive corps forward Connor Sheary has been one to note as well. When asked to name the 14 D-men that have played for the Penguins because of that carousel in the blue line this season he was quoted saying: “I could. It would take me a minute”. Captain Sidney Crosby, when asked about the depth of his team, admits that the adversity is good for the task ahead. “I think we’ve been pretty resilient. I think we’ve had to play a lot of teams lately, a lot of guys in different positions and different roles. They’ve come in and done a great job, so I think we’re trying to rally around that adversity a bit and find ways to win points” the Pittsburgh star echoes.
The Penguins are 8-2-2 so far in March with their OT S/O loss to Ottawa last night. Jake Guentzel led all rookies with 10 points (four goals) in the month entering Monday’s game, and yet the injury gnome reared his ugly head taking such a productive young star from a concussion that same night. With this recent development Penguins, fans got to see the grittiness and hard hitting that forward Archibald can bring to the team when he led the game with 5 hits in the end of the second period with his latest call-up against Ottawa. The moves and contributions of the AHLers can be seen broadly through the Penguins season and with the exception of Derek Pouliot, the majority of the call-ups have been productive to the points race by the NHL club.
In their constant need for healthy bodies the Penguins went with the following lines in Ottawa’s game:
With the calls on Corrado, Ruhwedel, Rowney, Sundqvist and Archibald the Pittsburgh team hoped to edge the Senators and keep their March rolling. However, with an overtime loss, the Penguins have little time to turn around and recover from the blow since they face the Islanders tonight in what’s expected to be a fast, energy charged game. With Pittsburgh not holding a skate today, we are left to wonder until 5:00 pm’s conference not only who’s starting on goal but who’s returning to the line-up.
Even though Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to start the real question comes back to the health of the team. Forwards Malkin and Rust are expected to come back any minute now, hoping to join their team in the race for that first place in the Metropolitan Division. With the amazing job Rutherford, Sullivan and the whole medical staff in Pittsburgh have done to not only hold on to the playoff spot at hand but to remain competitive despite the injuries, perhaps the better question here would be who sits when those who are injured come back. As the black and yellow-clad team takes the ice tonight one thing is certain: this kind of adversity brings teams together to make them champions. This kind of adversity hitting in March and before only means that the playoffs could bring a surge of healthy bodies for the Penguins. As the season comes to an end and the battle for Stanley commences, the winning spirit of Pittsburgh through adversity has many fans hoping for the same thing.
Because in the end, it’s all about that promise at the edge of the crowd in the Steel city as Rutherford’s words still ring in our ears. With every heartbreak through injury, we find solace with the depth of our troops making the dream harder to ignore.
“See you here next year”
Indeed Rutherford. If the team continues to March on, we could very well see something to the likes of the beginning of the 90’s in the steel city. However, I won’t dare utter the words because I am superstitious to a fault; but there’s no denying the dreams of another Parade by the river are steady in our minds.
Feature Image Credit goes to SI