As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for their Monday night showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs, they will be without center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. Add those key absences to what was already an injury-depleted lineup, and we’ll see seven AHL call-ups in uniform tonight at Consol Energy Center.
Surely the Penguins (23-10-1, 47 points) would rather have Malkin, Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Tanner Glass in the lineup instead of the likes of Jayson Megna, Zach Sill, Brian Dumoulin, Harry Zolnierczyk and Philip Samuelsson, if only to get what they’re paying for.
But, with the regular season almost four months from ending and the rest of the Metropolitan Division not presenting much of a threat, maybe getting a look at all these youngsters can benefit the Penguins in the long term. Yes, Pittsburgh’s chances of hanging onto their eight-point division lead and securing a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference are decreased without the big boys on the ice, but we’re long past the point where the Pens have anything to prove in the regular season.
Whether the call-ups currently on the NHL roster are needed later this season or further down the line, it’s advantageous to see how they handle the competition now as opposed to when the games are more important. In the meantime, veterans like Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and Matt Niskanen will have to shoulder more of the burden, but they’re all fully capable of doing so.
Moreover, the Penguins have done quite well under coach Dan Bylsma when hamstrung by injuries to significant contributors. In each of the past three seasons, Pittsburgh has had to deal with the absence of at least one highly-paid player for several weeks if not more; during that stretch, including this season, the Pens have a 158-72-15 record.
So while the Penguins have yet to reach a Stanley Cup Final since 2009, they’ve always been able to keep the ship afloat in the regular season, no matter the circumstances. That speaks well of the professionalism of the core players and the thoroughness of the coaching, a bedrock that allows inexperienced players to step right in and perform adequately.
Smooth sailing is foreign for recent editions of the Penguins. They might as well look for the best in an otherwise adverse situation.
Dumoulin to work on top power play?
With Deryk Engelland suspended indefinitely due to his hit to the head of Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader on Saturday – Engelland will have an in-person hearing in New York on Wednesday – rookie defenseman Brian Dumoulin skated on the second pairing in Monday’s gameday workout alongside Robert Bortuzzo. Dumoulin got more than 20 minutes of ice time in his first NHL game, a 4-1 win over the Red Wings.
Dumoulin stands to benefit from Malkin’s day-to-day lower-body injury, as the former Boston College Eagle participated in power-play drills with the No. 1 unit of Crosby, Kunitz, Jokinen and Niskanen. Letang’s upper-body ailment thrust Niskanen on the top PP squad for Saturday’s game.
Scuderi, Glass back on the ice
Scuderi, who suffered a broken ankle Oct. 26 in Toronto, took part in an official team practice for the first time since the injury; he was paired with Engelland for a full session. Bylsma said Scuderi is still a week away from returning to game action, but it’s positive progress for a team that welcomes it.
Also, Glass was an “extra forward” Monday morning, gripping his stick gingerly after getting the cast taken off his broken hand. Bylsma said the hard-charging bottom-six winger could be back within the week.
Limp Leafs blow into Pittsburgh
Toronto (17-14-3, 37 points) surprised many NHL observers with a 6-1 start, but the possession stats have always indicated the 2013-14 Maple Leafs were getting by on a combination of opportunism and good fortune. Those projections have proven accurate lately, as Toronto has gone 3-6-2 in its past 11 games to drop to fifth place in the Atlantic Division.
The Leafs’ 6-5 shootout loss in Pittsburgh on the night before Thanksgiving was part of that slump; in that game, the Penguins outshot Toronto 17-0 in the third period to rally from a two-goal deficit. That ending was emblematic of the Leafs’ possession woes, as they are second from last in the NHL in Fenwick Close, which measures shot attempts for and against in tight situations. Toronto also ranks 29th of 30 teams in Corsi Close and shot-on-goal differential.
The Penguins, meanwhile, are in the top eight in all three of those categories, which means either James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier will be under extreme pressure in the Leafs’ net. Marc-Andre Fleury gets the start for Pittsburgh in the 7 p.m. tilt. Root Sports (regional) and NHL Network (national) will have the TV coverage, while 105.9 The X has the radio broadcast.