May 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) and defenseman Kris Letang (58) and right wing Beau Bennett (right) react after Bennett scored a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period in game one of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

An Early Arrival for the Pens’ Ailing Players is Imperative


 

The Pittsburgh Penguins, marred with injuries, are anticipating the returns of some key skaters.

Defenseman Kris Letang and forward Beau Bennett have practiced the past two days, and are progressing towards being re-inserted relatively soon. Blueliner Paul Martin, although out for a little while longer, is expected to be back in action around early-to-mid April. And goaltender Tomas Vokoun, whose missed the entire season, is ramping up his conditioning to remain adamant about returning.

Understandably, some of those injuries may take some time to fully recover – Letang (stroke), Vokoun (blood clot), Martin (broken hand) – however, I can’t stress enough how imperative it is to get them all back before the postseason begins.

And not just before the playoffs, a little bit earlier than that.

Look, most of these players haven’t touched the ice all season. Well, they have, they just haven’t been able to stay on it.

Between the four of them, they have performed in 79 total games, and Pittsburgh has played 67 so far. Bennett’s skated in just 12, Letang in 34, Martin in 33, and Vokoun hasn’t even slotted in net once. To say that it’s important for them to imminently become available would be an understatement.

As I alluded to earlier, all of these players are extremely vital pieces to the Pens’ Stanley Cup run.

Despite being blessed with tremendous defensive depth, Letang still, by all accounts, is the most dynamic blueliner they possess. Bennett is a prolific goal-scorer, and although he hasn’t shown much of that in the 12 games he’s performed in, it’s unfair to evaluate him because he’s played in that many tilts. Martin is, in my opinion, the Pens’ best two-way defenseman – Olli Maatta is a close candidate too – and Vokoun was the team’s savior last postseason.

Let’s say Pittsburgh does get them back, but it’s around, or in the postseason. You know how much that’s going to hurt the Pens, rather than help?

Chemistry is everything when it comes to championship teams. And if you’re analyzing the effectiveness of the team’s game, should they all be integrated at playoff time, it’s dim because the four of them haven’t sniffed live action in quite a while. In order to build sufficient continuity, you need time. Not to mention, they all have yet to get accustomed with the Pens’ newcomers – Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak.

I’m not stating these four are going to drag the team down if they’re returning at a late date, I just feel they themselves wouldn’t quite be in shape, or have enough rhythm.

Take Crosby for example.

Last postseason, Crosby entered Game Two against the New York Islanders in round one, after missing a little over a month with a broken jaw. Despite the captain’s two tallies, Pittsburgh lost 4-3, and seemed too reliant on him. Shutting the Islanders down in the first game – without Crosby in the lineup – Pittsburgh, although they eventually moved on to the quarterfinals, surrendered 17 goals in the last five tilts with New York.

Now, of course, in absolutely NO WAY am I implying Crosby’s return was a burden. I’m claiming the line adjustments messed with Pittsburgh’s overall team chemistry.

No doubt, Crosby makes everyone better, however, because he was inserted late, and the Pens’ acquired some high profiled names at the trade deadline, the comfort just wasn’t there. And it showed, given the heavy load Crosby had to shoulder.

So, let Crosby’s situation last postseason be an example for this year’s ailing players.

They need to be involved. If the opportunity to be rarin’ to go is there, take it. The more games they get in before playoff time, the better off Pittsburgh will ultimately be.

But of course, having them 100-percent healthy comes first.

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  • TomD

    Johnny, your observation about Crosby’s absence/presence during the first round playoff series last year against the Islanders, and the teams performance, is quite relevant to the teams situation right now. It is an excellent example that even though the Penguins have had injuries effect the stability of their lines and defensive pairings all season long this year, there have been times when they have played well through the injuries. Game 1 of the Islander series last year is a good example, a very well played 5-0 win. When this team approaches the challenges that face them with a certain grit and determination, and a concentration on the defensive side of the game, they seem to do well. When they lose sight of that, more often than not, they don’t.

    So, it is not so much the injuries that determine the team’s performance, it is how they perform through those injuries. Yes, it would be better if players were healthy and playing. But, I think your point is quite accurate. Ultimately, it is how the team performs through the challenges that they’ve been dealt, in a team-centered, structured way, that influences whether the team consistently wins or not. This may be especially true in the playoffs.

    • Johnny

      Appreciate you reading Tom, and I’m on the same page as you.

      It’s frustrating to see so many people completely favor Pittsburgh simply based off skill, rather than overall team continuity. Yes, if Pittsburgh has a healthy lineup, they’re, obviously, more formidable. However, it’s chemistry/rhythm that builds champions, not talent.

      You know, playing as a teammm. Not solely Crosby-Malkin reliant.

      You get that though.