The Pittsburgh Penguins have built up a 2-1 series lead, despite dealing with numerous injuries to some of their most important positions.
No one can understate the importance of getting starting goaltender Tristan Jarry back between the pipes or the importance of getting back top-six winger Rickard Rakell. However, for the Penguins to make a deep run, they need to get Brian Dumoulin back in the lineup sooner rather than later.
Dumoulin has missed the previous two games due to a lower-body injury that he sustained during Game 1 of the series early last week. He has yet to return to the ice but is considered day-to-day by Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
After four seasons of being one of the most reliable defensive defensemen the Penguins have ever seen, Dumoulin has regressed the past two years due to sustaining multiple lower-body injuries. Dumoulin spent most of the regular season healthy but seemed to have lost a step causing his numbers to drop.
During Game 1, Dumoulin seemed to be getting back to his old self. While on the ice at even strength, Dumoulin and Kris Letang didn't allow a single goal and the Penguins out-chanced the Rangers 18-11, including a 9-6 advantage in high danger chances. According to Natural Stat Trick, that pairing accounted for 58.2 percent of the expected goals when they were on the ice at even strength.
Once Dumoulin was ruled out for Game 2, Mike Matheson moved up to the top defense pair alongside Kris Letang. In the two games since, that pairing has allowed five of the New York Rangers seven goals at even strength. They have been out-chanced 22-19 while on the ice together, despite starting 58 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.
In similar minutes the Dumoulin-Letang pairing began 37% of their shifts in the offensive zone. Getting Dumoulin back doesn't just takes the pressure off of Letang, but it takes the pressure off the other defense pairings, who wouldn't have to shoulder as much of the defensive burden when it comes to defensive zone starts.
Matheson and Letang have been the Penguins best defenseman all season long, but together they are seemingly too volatile for playoff hockey. Both have an innate ability to create offense effectively. Unfortunately, it usually comes at the expense of their defensive effectiveness. With the Penguins down to their third-string goalie, they should focus their defenseman on insulating their net-front as much as possible.
Game 2 was a particularly rough night for Matheson. The Penguins trailed 3-2 halfway through the third period when Matheson accidentally deflected an Artemi Panarin centering pass behind Penguins goaltender Louis Domingue to make it 4-2. The Pens had controlled the play in the period up to that point and seemed to be on the verge of tying up the game. Instead, they went down by two, and then 90 seconds later, Matheson was embarrassed by Rangers forward Frank Vatrano, who skated right passed him before scoring a high glove-side goal on Domingue to make it 5-2.
Matheson excelled this season when playing alongside Chad Ruhwedel on the Penguins bottom pairing. It allows him to match up with the lower lines for the opposing teams, where he can take advantage of his elite skating ability to quickly transition from defense to offense, and create scoring chances.
For the Penguins to make a deep run in this year's playoffs, they need Brian Dumoulin to return to the lineup.
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