CORAOPOLIS, PA – When Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acquired Mark Streit for a fourth-round pick two drafts from now, he could not have imagined he would be without his top three puck-moving defensemen in the Eastern Conference final.
But his intelligence and experience told him that you can never have too many NHL-capable defensemen around if you’re on a long playoff run. And so it is that the 39-year-old Streit may see his first playoff action for the Penguins when they travel to Ottawa for Game 3 on Wednesday. If Justin Schultz, who was injured in Game 2 and is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, can’t play, we’re getting to the ball, tape and string stage when it comes to keeping the Penguins’ defense corps together. But having an experienced, poised and ready body to insert into the lineup will help.
The official line from the Penguins is that both Schultz and Patric Hornqvist are day-to-day with upper-body injuries. Bryan Rust, who left the game after taking a hit from Ottawa defenseman Dion Phaneuf, is day-to-day with an upper-body injury and is still being evaluated. Take that for what it’s worth. None appears to be coming back to the lineup in the short-term.
“We feel we’ve got capable people,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re fortunate to have the depth we have. Mark is a guy who has invaluable experience. He’s a really savvy player and he can help us on our power play, help us get out of our zone. He’s a real good puck mover and that was one of the reasons why we acquired him when we did. He really helped us win games down the stretch, so if Mark is the guy we go to, we know he can continue to help us win games.”
But seriously, how can a team, even one as good as the Penguins, expect to win in the playoffs without its three most prolific puck movers from the back end? It has already had a profound effect on them. Combined with the Senators penchant for clogging things up, the Penguins have had much of their speed game taken away from them. But, to their credit, they refuse to use it as an excuse.
“Because we believe we have a good team and we have a deep team,” Sullivan said when asked that very question. “We have what it takes to win regardless of which guys are in our lineup. We have capable guys and I think this team has a chemistry that is a competitive advantage for us. We believe that. It’s just one more challenge that this team is going to have to face and find ways to overcome.”
It certainly helps when you’ve had a good amount of practice doing that. The Penguins’ patchwork defense corps has worked for them to this point. And their ability to adapt to a constantly changing cast of characters makes it easier to continue doing that. There has been much made of the fact the Penguins are beginning to show their frustration. Much of that has been attributed to the Senators and the way they have clogged up the ice, but there’s a chance it can also be traced back to the fact that the puck is not getting to the forwards as fluidly as it does when the likes of Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Schultz are in the lineup.
“Everyone wants the puck, but sometimes it doesn’t work,” said Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. “Two games, we score two goals. It’s not easy. We want to score more. In the first game we have five power plays and we don’t score, of course a little bit we lose our minds.”
That was certainly part of what led to the heated exchanges on the Penguins bench that went viral. Phil Kessel, who scored the only goal of the game, was among the most animated players, but Malkin was also showing some angst, to the point where Sullivan had to get into his ear to calm him down. For his part, Malkin said he and Kessel are fine.
“We’re emotional guys and sometimes we’re not happy,” Malkin said. “I’m open and he doesn’t pass to me or the defenseman doesn’t pass to me. I want the puck more sometimes. Sully came to me after and said, ‘Be careful, be easy, save your emotions and just play the game.’ And he’s right. Sometimes we lose our minds for a couple of shifts, but after we have a rest in the commercial break and we talk to each other and we start playing the same way.”
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