The Pittsburgh Penguins will begin the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday against the New York Rangers. To be successful against the top team in the National Hockey League, the Penguins will need to play better than their 8-11-2 record since the beginning of March. Even more worrying is the fact that of those eight wins, only two have come against teams that qualified for the postseason.
The first step toward accomplishing that goal is getting some healthy bodies in black-and-gold uniforms. Injuries and salary cap concerns prevented the Penguins from fielding a full squad several times over the final weeks of the regular season.
With the end of the regular season and the lifting of salary cap restrictions, the replenishment of the Penguins’ ranks started in earnest on Sunday, when defensemen Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin were recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
“It will allow for our defense to get up and be involved in the rush a little bit more,” Johnston said.
With Dumoulin and Harrington, the Penguins have some young legs to add to a defense that played back-to-back games last weekend with only five players. Having to play with just five players on the blueline made things difficult for the Pens down the stretch, but that adversity may have come with a silver lining.
“We really had to manage our minutes as far as shift length,” Johnston said on Monday. “It was good for our defense. You look at the guys and how they’ve played in those moments when we had to go with five defense, and boy, we saw some really good things.
“We talked before the Buffalo game about how our defense has really risen up and taken advantage of an opportunity, taken advantage of more minutes and they’ve delivered.”
The trend continued on Tuesday, when rookie forward Scott Wilson also joined the club from Wilkes-Barre, and injured defenseman Christian Ehrhoff rejoined his teammates for practice.
“He gives us some depth, and that’s what you’re looking for going into the playoffs,” head coach Mike Johnston of the rookie winger. “He’s a good two-way forward and he can score. He’s got a good stick. He also plays a gritty, almost playoff-style game.”
What Wilson doesn’t bring is experience, having only played 4:21 in his one and only NHL game in December against New Jersey. In 55 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Wilson has 19 goals (second on the team) and 41 points (third on the team).
Wilson practiced alongside Brandon Sutter on the third line at practice on Tuesday. With the Penguins already having 13 healthy forwards, it seems more likely that Wilson will be a depth option and will only see the lineup if the players above him falter or are injured.
Ehrhoff has not yet been cleared to play, but Johnston characterized him as day-to-day. The Penguins still have one more practice session and a morning skate before Tuesday’s playoff opener. Ehrhoff will continue to be evaluated throughout that time.
Not practicing this week was defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who suffered an upper-body injury and missed the final weekend of the season. No update on condition was available.
Even without Ehrhoff, the Penguins now have at least seven healthy defensemen at their disposal. Johnston was unwilling to commit to which player would be more likely to see ice time come Thursday, but it is worth noting that Dumoulin was frequently paired with Taylor Chorney, currently the Penguins fifth defenseman, when both players were in Wilkes-Barre this season.
In 62 games with the AHL Penguins, Dumoulin had four goals and 29 assists. Chorney and Dumoulin were second and third in the AHL in plus/minus, combining for a plus-51 rating.
Neither Harrington nor Dumoulin have played particularly well in limited time with the big club this season. Dumoulin has one assist and is even in eight games. Harrington went without a point and was a minus-10 in 10 games.
It seems to be clear that going into the series, the Penguins will be relying heavily on their top four defenders – Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and Rob Scuderi – to shut down the Rangers’ offense.
That could be problematic, as the Rangers have one of the deepest list of scoring threats in the Eastern Conference. Beyond 40-goal scorer Rick Nash, the Blueshirts have a pair of 20-goal scorers in Chris Kreider and Martin St. Louis and seven other Rangers eclipsed the ten-goal mark this season.
Even more troublesome is the fact that the Rangers have their top three goal scorers spread out over three different scoring lines. For the Penguins to survive the first round, some young defensemen are going to have to do some heavy lifting.
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