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Finally healthy, Eaton an unlikely scoring star

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There are some very talented offensive-minded defensemen in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, including a pair in the Eastern Conference Semifinal between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.

But a quick glance at the leaders among defensemen in goals doesn't include either Mike Green, the Capitals' Norris Trophy candidate, or Penguins' All-Star Sergei Gonchar.

With 3 goals in 7 postseason games, Mark Eaton is tied for the top spot in the League. He scored twice in a first-round series win over Philadelphia, including the second goal in a Pittsburgh comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the Game 6 clincher, and added another in the opener against Washington.

"I think you would have taken that bet before the playoffs started," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

Considering Eaton had just 4 goals in the 68 games this season, and entering this year's playoffs he had no goals -- and no points -- in 23 previous postseason games, it would have been a bet worth taking.

But his floater from the left point that beat Simeon Varlamov in Saturday's second period was his third goal, and gave him goals in two straight games -- something he's never done as an NHL player.

"That's what the playoffs are about," Eaton told NHL.com, "trying to get contributions from everyone. Whatever my role is, if I can chip in a goal here or there, that's not my primary role. But if I'm able to add that, that's a bonus."

Eaton's run with the Penguins has been a bonus for GM Ray Shero, who knew the defenseman from their days together in Nashville, where Shero was an assistant GM. When Shero was hired in Pittsburgh, one of the first moves he made was to sign Eaton.

"The last year I was in Nashville, he played with Kimmo Timonen," Shero told NHL.com. "They were our shutdown pair, played against all the top players, and he and Kimmo did a great job. He was a free agent at the end of that year. I was looking to add a guy who could defend, looking to add character, which he had, and looking to add some experience, which he had as well. He had a few other options, and I was happy he chose Pittsburgh. I think it's been a good fit for him when he's been healthy."

Health was a major issue for Eaton in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. He played just 35 games in 2006-07 due to a broken wrist suffered against San Jose, and just 36 games last season due to a torn knee ligament suffered against Boston.

Despite those injuries, Shero wasted little time signing Eaton to a new, two-year contract this past summer.

"The injuries that he suffered, they were catastrophic injuries," said Shero. "He got pushed into the boards from behind by (Jonathan) Cheechoo in San Jose, breaks his wrist badly. It wasn't an innocent play, it was a tough injury. Then he gets slew-footed by Marco Sturm and tears an ACL. Those were two tough injuries but two bad hockey plays. Wasn't like it was a nagging injury.

"It certainly was a gamble, especially a two-year deal."

Shero admits to second-guessing himself early in the season, but Eaton said it took until Christmas -- nearly a year after he first suffered the knee injury -- before he felt like himself.

"It took a good 11, 12 months before my knee wasn't really an issue," said Eaton. "I could tell going up and down stairs and certain things, there was interior knee pain, but most of that subsided around Christmas time. I would go to practice every day and skate and the knee didn't bother me, didn't hurt. That was a year from when it happened."

"That's what the playoffs are about, trying to get contributions from everyone. Whatever my role is, if I can chip in a goal here or there, that's not my primary role. But if I'm able to add that, that's a bonus." -- Mark Eaton
In 42 games after the Christmas break, Eaton had 2 goals and 7 points -- not earth-shattering numbers, but considering he had just 2 points prior to Christmas, the improvement is obvious.

"What you're seeing now with a healthy Mark Eaton is a guy who can get up and down the ice well," said Shero. "He can skate, he can think the game, he defends well. It was a chance we took (signing him) and I'm glad he's gotten his game back. He might be playing the best he's played in his career, and I'm happy for him."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.


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