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Penguins' defense depth critical given injuries

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins' defense corps has been plagued by injuries this season, but hasn't sustained any noticeable lapses in performance.

Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero has been lauded for the young depth on defense the organization has accumulated in recent seasons, and that depth has been on display because of the injuries.

That said, the toughest test has yet to come.

Kris Letang (upper body) was added to the ever-growing Pittsburgh injury list when he did not dress for a 4-1 victory Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings. Injuries to Brooks Orpik (concussion), Paul Martin (broken leg) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) have led the Penguins to recall defensemen Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin and now Philip Samuelsson from the American Hockey League and rearrange their defensive pairings on a game-by-game basis.

Letang, Scuderi, Orpik and Martin were the team's top four defensemen at the start of the season. Add in a possible suspension for Deryk Engelland, who will have an in-person hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety on Wednesday after delivering a hit to the head of Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader on Saturday, and the Penguins could be without five of the seven defensemen from the opening-night roster for some time.

"Kris was a game-time decision and not having him, Brian Dumoulin gets his first game, steps in there in tough situations and tough spots," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after the game against Detroit. "Under tough situations, you're talking about playing against a real good group of forwards, a real good group of players coming at them and they stood up strong with it."

Kris Letang joins the growing list of injured Penguins and greatly affects an already depleted defense. (Photo: Greg Abel/NHLI)

That has been a theme throughout the season, but the injuries never seemed as dire as they do currently.

The Penguins have allowed 2.18 goals per game, which ranks fourth in the NHL. Their defense has been fully healthy for a total of four periods this season. The problems started when Letang missed their first nine games with a lower-body injury, but Pittsburgh has taken a next-man-up approach and has maintained its lead atop the Metropolitan Division.

"With Kris Letang out at the beginning of the year for nine games, that's a big void," Bylsma said. "That's our leading, or possibly our leading, ice-time getter and that was that way from the start of the season, through those first nine games. So, guys had to step up there with bigger roles.

"For us, our team has the luxury of being very deep at defenseman."

Veteran and young defensemen have been equally important to the Penguins' steady play.

In his seventh season, Matt Niskanen has been possibly Pittsburgh's most reliable player at the position. He's had a plus- or even-rating in 17 straight games and has been a plus-10 during that stretch. Niskanen is tied for third in the NHL with a plus-17 rating.

Engelland, in his fifth season in Pittsburgh, and Robert Bortuzzo, who has played in three consecutive games since being a healthy scratch in 12 of Pittsburgh's previous 13, have added depth to the Penguins' lineup. With Engelland possibly missing some time, Bortuzzo will likely take a larger role.

"When you have a guy like Deryk Engelland, or you have a guy like Robert Bortuzzo, you have a capable guy who's not playing, who's sitting in the stands," Bylsma said. "So, in the absence of a player, those guys get opportunities to step in the lineup.

"They're not second-class citizens moving into a situation."

Olli Maatta, a rookie who earned a spot on the opening-day roster in training camp, and Despres, a 22-year-old defenseman who began this season in the AHL after playing 33 games with Pittsburgh last season, have also been vital to the Penguins' success.

In Scuderi's absence, Maatta has played next to Letang at times and fit in well with the 2012-13 Norris Trophy finalist. He played less than 20 minutes in each of his first 24 games, but has surpassed that mark four times since. With Letang out of the lineup, Maatta played a career-high 22:08 on Saturday against the Red Wings and scored his second NHL goal.

"We're missing really good players, our top D-men," Maatta said. "But when it happens, there's nothing we can do about it right now. All we can do is just everybody has to step up a little bit and I think we've done it pretty well."

Since being recalled from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Despres has viewed his time with Pittsburgh as an opportunity to make the impact he was unable to make last season. He has three assists in nine games and is four points shy of matching his seven-point total from 2012-13.

Olli Maatta
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 8
SOG: 45 | +/-: 1
"I'm just trying to play simple, a good positional game and I feel like I've come a long way since training camp," Despres said. "I've been here for three years almost. I spent the whole year last year here. I know what's going on and I know all of the guys and I know the system.

"It's a pretty easy transition for me."

Even without well-defined defensive pairings, Pittsburgh has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of its past eight games. That stretch has been fueled by its second-ranked penalty killing unit (87.8 percent) that has killed 17 straight power plays in its past six games.

"Maybe they [penalty killers] haven't gotten credit, but I think everyone in this room recognizes how good it's been," Niskanen said. "That was a question mark for a period of time two springs ago and last season for a little bit. So, guys have done a really good job of focusing on it and trying to get better at it.

"I think quietly that the penalty kill can win you some games. It can just totally take any momentum the other team has out of it."

It's unclear how long Pittsburgh could be without Letang, Orpik or Martin, but Scuderi could return to practice as early as Monday. The Penguins had a day off Sunday and an update on Letang's condition isn't expected to be provided until after their morning skate Monday. As well as the defense has played without them, the Penguins look forward to their injured defensemen returning.

"The depth has been there. They've been able to step in and do a good job," Bylsma said on Friday. "Having said that, we'll get ready to welcome Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik when they get a chance to get healthy in our lineup."

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