Pens Down, But Not Out
Sunday, 01.8.2012 / 3:24 PM ET / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
Arron Asham Bio/Stats
The team announced Sunday that they will be without forwards Jordan Staal and James Neal for an extended period of time. (Click here for details on their respective injuries). And losing both Staal and Neal is a huge blow for Pittsburgh, as both players are having monster seasons for the Penguins.
Neal, 24, leads the team and ranks fifth in the league with 21 goals. He’s been an integral part of Pittsburgh’s rejuvenated power play, getting an NHL-leading 10 tallies on the man-advantage. Meanwhile, Staal, 23, has produced 15 goals (third on the team) while being one of the Penguins’ top shutdown and penalty killing forwards.
They join captain Sidney Crosby (concussion-like symptoms), top defenseman Kris Letang (broken nose/concussion) and forwards Arron Asham (lower body) and Dustin Jeffrey (knee) on the injured list.
And while the Penguins won’t make excuses for themselves, these losses of key players are becoming a lot to overcome.
“When you’re losing guys that play key roles or key minutes, it maybe gets frustrating when it happens time and time again,” forward Chris Kunitz said, who’d been playing on a line with Neal and Evgeni Malkin for the past month.
As alluded to earlier, this isn’t uncharted territory for the Penguins as they dealt with an influx of injuries last season as well – losing 350 man-games in 2010-11, including a combined 119 to Crosby, Malkin and Staal.
Despite that, Pittsburgh still finished in a tie for the Atlantic Division title with 106 points (49-25-8).
However, it’s worse this year as the Pens are on pace for 431 man-games lost. For example, it’s gotten so bad that winger Pascal Dupuis has had to play center on a few occasions this season for the first time in his 10-year NHL career.
But injuries are freak occurrences that they can’t do anything about, and they’ll draw from last year’s experience to help them come together this time around.
“We have no choice but to deal with it,” Dupuis said. “The fact that we went through it last year, we probably know with this group of guys that we can get through.”
“Obviously we’re missing some high-end talent, but this isn’t the first time that we’ve had to battle that,” added defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “We know how to win without everybody in the locker room and without everybody perfectly healthy. We have to get back there starting Tuesday night.”
All they can do is worry about is the guys they do have in the locker room, starting with the players that have been there all season – primarily All-Star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury was the anchor of the Penguins’ depleted lineup in 2010-11, with the team MVP putting together the finest season of his career through all of the adversity – and his teammates need the same from him this year.
“He is and needs to be our best player,” Lovejoy said. “He’s the one constant that we’ve had throughout the years. He’s our MVP, no doubt. Just for him to continue his sharp play, it’s so comforting knowing that he’s back there and it allows us to play with speed and confidence. He is the main cog in that machine.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma also said in order to fill the goal-scoring void left by Neal and Staal, the team will count on Malkin and Tyler Kennedy to step up and deliver in that area.
But the overall burden can’t fall squarely on the shoulders of those three players. The Pens will also be relying on their organizational depth to help them through this tough stretch.
“We understand that we’ll have to recall one, if not two, players to step in and play significant roles,” Bylsma said. “They’ll be counted on to step in and play the way we need to play to have success.”
As Kunitz put it, somebody’s loss is somebody else’s opportunity. And they’ll need it to be seized by whoever gets it.
“Last year, some guys did it and hopefully we’ll have some new heroes this year,” Dupuis said.
Injuries are bad at any point of the season, but it's especially horrible timing for the latest ones as the Penguins aren’t where they want to be in the standings. They’re winless in their last four games and currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference – just one point out of ninth and two from 10th.
But right now, all the Penguins can do is take it one game at a time.
"As a group we have to find a way to go out and have success and win hockey games," Bylsma said. "That’s not just scoring more goals or getting players in here to do that. It’s knowing how we have to play and going out and playing that way to have that success, playing that team game every night to have success, have some wins and keep us going towards the playoffs."