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Rutherford confident Penguins are ready for playoffs

by Shawn Roarke

BOCA RATON, Fla.-- The Pittsburgh Penguins may have lost two home games in a 24-hour span last weekend, but general manager Jim Rutherford believes they are ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A shutout loss to the Boston Bruins in a Saturday matinee, and a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in a nationally televised afternoon game on Sunday, sounded some alarm bells around a team which has struggled for consistency all season.

Rutherford, however, was not concerned when he arrived for the start of the spring installment of the NHL's general managers meetings. The Penguins are 39-20-10 and in third place in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind the New York Islanders with two games in hand. The Washington Capitals, which holds the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, are four points behind the Penguins.

"As long as we are healthy, we are ready for the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs and feel we can compete with anyone," Rutherford said Monday. "But, playoffs are playoffs; you get down to a series, especially the way it is now with parity, it can go either way. We're certainly prepared."

Health has been an issue all season for the Penguins. They have lost top-six forward Pascal Dupuis and young defenseman Olli Maatta to season-ending injuries. Twenty-four different players have dressed to fill their 12 forward spots and 13 different players have dressed to fill the six defensemen positions.

Yet, aside from the long-term injuries to Maatta and Dupuis, the Penguins were approaching full health as the weekend dawned.

"I was driving in the other day and I thought, 'Boy, we are going to be healthy for the first time and we're going to have a full lineup, other than the two guys that are out for the year,'" Rutherford said. "Then, I got there, found out [Sidney Crosby] wasn't playing and a few shifts in and [Evgeni] Malkin was out. Now from [Sunday], we have [Patric] Hornqvist out."

Crosby missed the game against the Bruins when he was a last-minute scratch because of illness. He returned Sunday, in part because Malkin was lost to injury in the first period of the game Saturday. On Sunday, Hornqvist was injured in the third period of the game against the Red Wings.

Rutherford said Monday that Malkin could miss 1-2 weeks and that Hornqvist would be out a week.

But the need to use more players and to be aggressive before and at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline has transformed his team.

"Overall, we strengthened our defense, gave it more depth and more balance at the trade deadline and so as long as we can get healthy, I feel good about our team," Rutherford said. "We have more balance, we're deeper; our third and fourth line can contribute if our first and second get shut down.

Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 48 | PTS: 71
SOG: 195 | +/-: 8
Plus, the Penguins still have Crosby, one of the best players in the game. Yes, Rutherford has heard the chorus of critics who look at Crosby's production and suggest he is playing at a subpar level.

"That's total nit-picking," Rutherford said. "There is nothing wrong with Sid."

The numbers may suggest otherwise. In 64 games, Crosby has 71 points. Crosby has played 70 or more games in four seasons during his career and has topped 100 points each time. Last season, he had 104 points in 80 games.

Yet the lack of production does not bother Rutherford. He believes his captain is doing more to help the Penguins be successful than he ever has.

"To me, his play has been as good as it's ever been, especially over the last month or so, and adjusting to [coach] Mike Johnston's system and what Mike is asking of him," Rutherford said. "From an overall team point of view and what needs to be done to be successful, he's made that adjustment and done it very well."

Johnston was Rutherford's choice to coach the Penguins, replacing Dan Bylsma, who was fired after the 2013-14 season. Johnston has changed the system under which the Penguins operate. It is based more on defensive responsibility than in the past. Rutherford said Crosby has bought in. He is coming back into his own zone more often and has agreed to let the stretch play to start transition fade from his game a bit.

"It's coming back into your own end, it's playing both ends of the rink, no cheating and playing the game the way it is meant to be played and he's bought into that," Rutherford said. "He's doing it very well. That trip out West and the California games, he was terrific in those games, played the way we need to play to win and be a good playoff team."

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