It was inevitable, really. The Pittsburgh Penguins have put on a brave face and faced their challenge head-on, but sometimes the challenge is so great that simply facing it is in itself a victory. The Penguins injury bug is officially an epidemic worthy of a CDC quarantine after defenseman Brian Dumoulin on Saturday became the 11th prime Penguins skater to suffer an injury during the Penguins difficult 5-2 loss in St. Louis on Saturday night.
The list reads more like the starting lineup than the injured list. In chronological order, these Penguins have missed weeks at a time. Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, Sidney Crosby, Justin Schultz, Rust again and now it appears that Dumoulin could be on the list, again.
“No. Never this many for this long,” Sullivan said as he admitted the injury epidemic is uncharted territory. “Quite honestly, it’s a useless emotion (to be affected by it). It doesn’t serve us well.”
The next man up cliche may have begun as a Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin cliche, but now it is popular lexicon across sports and a rallying cry. The next man up must perform because, to steal another Tomlin cliche, the standard is the standard.
However, real-life doesn’t always fit into a slogan for a bumper sticker or an inspirational chalkboard quote. For all of the tactical discipline which has arrived in hockey like a tidal wave, a team still needs the talent to win games. And the Penguins are desperately short on talent.
We’re past the stage in which the injuries can be a good thing. The silver linings of discovering an identity, learning to enjoy playing honest hockey and discovering new faces are the past.
Jared McCann can be a competent second-line center for a few weeks, but not long term. Sam Lafferty can be an NHL center for a few weeks, but perhaps not long term, just as Teddy Blueger isn’t really a third-line center. When the rush of adrenaline wears off, things regress to the mean.
If the Penguins miss Dumoulin for an extended period, or “longer-term” in the recent parlance of our times, the Penguins will be forced to have their seventh and eighth defensemen in the lineup and playing meaningful minutes.
And the fact is, the Penguins are missing their best player (Crosby), their second most productive offensive defenseman (Schultz), the lineup spark plug (Rust), and a rock-ribbed third-line center (Bjugstad) who allows McCann to be a dynamic winger instead of the responsible center. Saturday night when the Penguins lost Dumoulin, they lost their minutes eating, stabilizing force.
“We’re capable. We just have to play a solid team game, and if we do that we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every night,” Sullivan insisted.
Capable, yes. However, if a team has to play perfectly, it adds an extra level of pressure which can be counter-productive in a stressful time. The Penguins margin for error is slim. If Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel don’t post two goals, the rest of the Penguins makeshift lineup has to come through for the third, or fourth goal to win the game.
Again, possible but not always likely.
“I think the recipe we’ve used all year has been helping us so far,” said alternate captain Kris Letang. “Maybe sometimes when you lose important guys like Sid and Geno, ‘Dumo’ and ‘Schultzy’, sometimes you have to go and simplify you’re game and get one-goal games and stuff like that.”
That part is true, however, the Penguins haven’t yet simplified their game and any one goal games recently are the result of a multi-goal comeback.
“I think we’ll be fine. We just have to regroup and stick to it,” Letang said.
That belief is better on the inside, but perhaps not better in all parts of the Penguins organization. The Penguins are decimated and that belief in themselves can last only so long before useless emotions take hold. Athletes are human, too. Except perhaps Crosby. The Penguins may soon need a little help. They hold the final wild-card spot only by virtue of their additional games played.
Sooner than later, the Penguins need a dose of feel-good. Crosby is still a month or more away. We’ll learn more about Rust and Dumoulin in the coming days. We’re also learning about the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have heart but that’s not always enough.
The Penguins need a jolt. The Penguins have played protracted bad hockey in the last handful of games. They were fortunate to mount comebacks to win a couple of them, but have been spanked more recently.
The biggest jolt can come from GM Jim Rutherford in the form of reinforcements. Or from the trainer’s room if Rust or others return soon. Otherwise, the water will get more difficult to tread, no matter what the Pittsburgh Penguins say.