Losers of three in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins would like to have a full healthy roster ready to go Monday night as they take on the Carolina Hurricanes, who are now three points behind Pittsburgh for the Metropolitan Division lead.
Of course, the Pens won’t have anything close to that as they face off at PNC Arena, as defenseman Rob Scuderi has joined wingers Beau Bennett and James Neal on the injured list. Per the Penguins’ website, Scuderi sustained a lower-body injury in Saturday’s loss to Toronto and thus returned to Pittsburgh for an evaluation. The stalwart defender will be out vs. Carolina, his first missed game in three seasons.
But while the Penguins would love to have Scuderi back on the ice to stabilize their blue line, the extended absences of Neal and Bennett have started to take their toll on the attack. Although Pittsburgh has looked potent at times during its three-game “slump,” the finishing touch that the missing snipers can provide has been missing.
To wit, last week the Penguins outshot their opponents in all three defeats, most lopsidedly in their 1-0 loss to Colorado last Monday. In that game, Pittsburgh fired 34 shots on goal and attempted more than 70, while the Avalanche managed to get just 14 on target. The Pens enjoyed similar advantages over the weekend against the Islanders and Maple Leafs.
Part of the problem has been the power play, which has connected only once in its last 15 opportunities. Prior to that, it was 7 for 25 in the first seven games of the season, all of which were sans Neal, so maybe this is just an extended aberration the Penguins have to fight through. Or it’s a case of opponents realizing Pittsburgh has limited options without their big gunner.
At even strength, it appears Evgeni Malkin is struggling to generate offense without Neal and, to a lesser degree, Bennett. Saturday night in Toronto was especially tough for “Geno,” who had two of his turnovers directly lead to goals for the Maple Leafs. Malkin’s most egregious mistake came early in the third, when his pass to nowhere transformed into Nazem Kadri‘s tiebreaker:
Jussi Jokinen has done admirable work on Malkin’s wing thus far, but having Chuck Kobasew on the opposite flank for much of this season has been a large departure from Neal’s usual dynamism. Malkin may have to simplify his game a little more until his linemate returns from his undisclosed upper-body ailment.
Injuries aren’t the lone problem for the offense, since the machine-like top line of Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Sidney Crosby has created only one goal in the last three. Still, it’s clear the Penguins are at less than full capacity as they tackle a four-game week that features a Wednesday matchup with Boston and a weekend home-and-home with new division rival Columbus.
Thriving in an 82-game regular season is about minimizing the tough times, but the Penguins will be challenged quite a bit this week as they take the ice without three of their best players.