Injuries aren't slowing down Penguins

Originally Published: December 18, 2013
By Katie Strang | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- To say the Pittsburgh Penguins are hampered by injuries would be an understatement of epic proportions. "Decimated" seems a bit more accurate. "Ravaged" certainly fits.

It's not just the sheer quantity of injuries the Penguins have sustained -- though that number is dizzying, too -- but also the specificity. Heading into Wednesday's match against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Penguins are without 10 roster players. What's even more mind-boggling is that list includes five of the team's top six defensemen.

Goalie Tomas Vokoun hasn't played this season because of a blood clot. Already missing some of their most critical offensive weapons -- Evgeni Malkin has been ruled out for the next two games with a lower-body injury, James Neal is still serving a five-game suspension -- the Penguins also have been hammered on the defensive end. In addition to Deryk Engelland getting a five-game suspension Wednesday, the Penguins will face the Rangers without: Kris Letang (upper body); Brooks Orpik (concussion); Paul Martin (broken tibia); and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle).

That leaves Matt Niskanen as the experienced defenseman, with 19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta looking more like a grizzled vet with each shift. Take Niskanen's career games out of the equation, and Pittsburgh's remaining defensive corps has only 139 NHL games among them.

[+] EnlargeBrooks Orpik
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesBrooks Orpik is out with a concussion after being knocked unconscious when Boston's Shawn Thornton threw him to the ice and punched him.

"I'm a No. 1 defenseman by default for the moment," Niskanen said in self-deprecating fashion. "But I'll take it for right now."

What has been perhaps most astounding about this difficult spate of injuries is that it hasn't seemed to slow down the Penguins. Even with a lineup that resembles the team's minor league affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Penguins remain perched atop the Eastern Conference with a 24-10-1 record and 49 points. Limping along, they have rattled off four consecutive victories and wins in nine of their past 10 games.

"It's not easy," Sidney Crosby said after the team's Wednesday morning skate. "To be missing the amount of guys we are is not common. I think the guys who have come in have done a great job and we have to just continue to do the same thing."

That Crosby and his line of Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have remained intact during this stretch remains a silver lining. Pacing the rest of the NHL with 47 points, Crosby notched his 19th goal of the season -- the game winner -- in Monday's 3-1 victory against the Leafs. Making a strong case as the front-runner for this season's Hart Trophy, Crosby is riding a seven-game point streak with six goals and five assists during that span.

"When you have Crosby in the lineup, you have a chance every night," Penguins general manager Ray Shero told ESPN.com.

Such adversity is not foreign to the Penguins. They played one-quarter of the lockout-shortened 2013 without Crosby, who was sidelined 12 games with a broken jaw. Crosby missed significant time with a concussion the season prior, playing only 22 games. And in 2010-11 the Penguins missed both Crosby and Malkin for an extended period. So there is confidence within the organization that the team can handle such a daunting task.

"Through an 82-game season, you need to be tested like this," Shero said. "Eighty-two games is long and you need something different. You've got to be playing your ass off or you're going to get your ass kicked. It is a challenge, but it keeps young guys on their toes."

[+] EnlargeKris Letang
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsKris Letang was put on injured reserve with an upper-body injury and is not expected back until after Christmas.

There is also a steady crop of young players, many of whom have been summoned from the minors in recent weeks, who have handled themselves with aplomb. Maatta was never expected to be much more than a look-see for the first nine games. He has since earned a regular spot in the lineup.

Youngsters Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson, son of Rangers assistant coach and ex-NHLer Ulf Samuelsson, have recently gotten opportunities. The latter two made their NHL debuts in the past week. And they have not disappointed.

"They're stepping in and playing meaningful spots on our team and contributing," coach Dan Bylsma said. "They're doing a remarkable job and not just sheltered minutes. They're playing big minutes for our group."

What does this tell us about the Penguins' organization? For one, they have some astounding depth. The franchise has been criticized before for drafting defensemen in recent years -- the Penguins have used 20 of their 50 picks on defensemen since Shero's arrival in 2006 -- but that is looking pretty shrewd right now. The transition has also proven seamless with a coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that implements the same system, verbiage and philosophy as the big club.

Other players have also taken on bigger roles and delivered with the type of results that keep Pittsburgh rolling through the East. Niskanen has been particularly impressive, even before his fellow defensemen started dropping. Handling a workload unlike ever before -- he played a career-high 29:26 of ice time against Detroit on Saturday -- he has proved himself capable of leading from the back end.

"It's not ideal having your top four guys out, but what happens is other guys get opportunities, whether it's a more important role or an opportunity for young guys to play," Niskanen said. "For me, it's tough matchups, more minutes, more time on the power play. That's an exciting opportunity. I hope it doesn't last for the entire season because that [would] mean that guys are coming back, but it's exciting and young guys are just thrilled to get a chance to play."

The credit here is plentiful, from Bylsma to AHL coaches John Hynes and Alain Nasreddin, to Shero and the club's scouting staff, and to the players themselves. Veterans Niskanen and Craig Adams have stepped up to fill the gaping voids. They've also steadied a young, inexperienced team. They've seen adversity before, and they know it's a necessary evil in any 82-game season.

Whether you welcome the challenge or not, it remains an inevitability.

"I think whether you want it or not, you're probably going to get it," Adams said to ESPN.com. "It's either going to be the end of you or you learn from it."

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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