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Battered Pens continue to fight

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens are acutely aware of the situation they are facing. 

*The team has been decimated by injuries. Currently there are eight players out of the lineup, including two foundational players in Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

*Due to the mounting injuries, the Pens' play has suffered. The team went 8-1-1 in the early period of March, an incredible run of success in spite of the injuries. But it is winless in its past four games at 0-2-2.

*With just six games remaining in the regular season, the Pens have little time to get healthy and to rediscover the swagger in their game.

The Pens have suffered 243 man-games lost and currently out are Trevor Daley (knee), Jake Guentzel (concussion), Carl Hagelin (lower-body), Ron Hainsey (upper-body), Kris Letang (upper-body), Olli Maatta (hand), Evgeni Malkin (shoulder), Chad Ruhwedel (upper-body) and Tom Sestito (upper-body).

"I think we all understand that these are pretty extenuating circumstances right now," said center Matt Cullen, who has been battling an illness himself. "I think we have a lot of faith and a lot of confidence in our group and in our core group. We understand that this is a bit of a bump in the road. We believe in what we have. We need to turn our game up. We have six more (games) so we need to get our game in the right place and be ready for playoffs."

FOCUS ON DETAILS

With only six games remaining in the regular season, the Pens' main focus over the final two weeks is to fine-tune the details in their game.

"With the situation we're in, we know we're in the playoffs, we want to make sure we're starting to play the right way," Conor Sheary said. "We talk about that a lot, doing the little things right. That's more important than results at this point. We want to make sure we have to details down coming into the playoffs."

The Pens certainly want results as well. Right now they sit two points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, their likely First Round opponent, and would love to have home-ice advantage to open the postseason.

However, the details are the foundation of winning. So that's where the team's focus will be. That was the message the coaching staff delivered to the team Thursday morning.

"Making sure that we keep our eye on the right ball as far as defining and understand how to play the game the right way," Sullivan said. "We understand our own identity and how we need to play to be successful. We believe as long as our focus is there and our compete-level is high that we'll get some results."

Crosby also understands the connection between playing well and winning. And his preference is for both.

"I think that you want to win and you want to play well," Crosby said. "As long as your game is in the right place, that is the most important thing. Obviously we have had a tough couple of games here with back-to-back games. There is a lot of hockey left and I think a lot of teams are trying to clean up things here, so hopefully we can play a little bit better and get some wins."

FACING ADVERSITY

Dealing with injuries is nothing new to the Pens. They began the season with Crosby (concussion) and goalie Matt Murray (hand) out of the lineup. At one point in the season four of their top six defensemen were sidelined.

And through it all the Pens just continued to win. Even during the latest stint of injuries, the Pens have somehow managed to overcome. In fact, following a 4-3 shootout loss at Calgary on March 13, Pittsburgh actually pulled into a tie with Washington for the best record in the NHL, despite having eight players out.

The Pens found success, as evidenced by an 8-1-1 run in that span. But Pittsburgh has since suffered back-to-back shootout losses followed by their two most lopsided losses of the season (6-2 to Philadelphia Sunday, 5-1 to Chicago Wednesday).

"I think regardless of previous records, or anything like that, the last couple of games haven't been good enough," Crosby said. "We've made some mistakes, especially early on in the first period. We've got to be better. That is the bottom line. Looking at other games, it is good that we stayed in it, but we are capable of more."

Adversity has a way of galvanizing a team and bringing it together. That's the outcome that winger Patric Hornqvist foresees taking place.

"They bring us closer together. We did it last year when (Malkin) went down and we had other injuries too," he said. "It doesn't matter who we have in the lineup. If we play the right way we know we have a great chance to win every single game. We want those guys back, but it's something we can't control."

HEALTHY RETURNS

Forward Jake Guentzel and defenseman Ron Hainsey practiced for a second time in contact on Thursday afternoon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

They both appear to be on the cusp of returning. They are game-time decisions for Friday night's contest in New York against the Rangers, though Sullivan did say they "look promising."

If there is a silver lining to having all of these injuries, it could be that as each player returns, they will be well rested and ready for the playoff push.

"They're going to come in with a lot of energy and bring the group a lot of energy too," Hornqvist said.

Sheary recently returned from missing 13 games, including all of February, with an upper-body injury. He returned healed from even the little bumps and bruises that come with the game. Sheary hopes for the same for his injured teammates when they get back on the ice.

"We have a lot of important guys out of our lineup right now, a lot of our top players," Sheary said. "For them to be fresh come playoff time could be a huge boost for us."

However, the Pens aren't going to wait around for their injured players to come back. They have to take care of business in the meantime.

"I don't think we can worry about who is back when, it is just making sure we play the right way so when guys do come back in the lineup it is an easier transition," Crosby said. "I think as a group going into the playoffs you want to make sure you are playing the right way so a couple games doesn't change a lot. We know how we need to play. We know our game so we just have to make sure we are better."

BIG PICTURE

The Pens play in a tough league where injuries are a part of the game. Other teams aren't going to take it easy or sympathize with Pittsburgh's circumstances. That is the nature of the game.

The Pens can't control who is in or out of the lineup. But they can, individually, handle their own job on a day-to-day basis in the hopes that those individual efforts will lead to collective success.

"The most important thing is to make sure we get locked in," Sullivan said. "That's a daily endeavor. That's where winning starts. We try to raise it to our players attention almost daily. We think it's that important to establishing that mindset that is necessary to win in this league."

Even with the Pens' current depleted lineup, Sullivan sees a winning hockey team.

"I believe we have what it takes to win," Sullivan said. "I believe we have enough and we understand that some of the guys we have out of our lineup are hard to replace. They are good players so we understand that, but we also believe that we have what it takes to win. That is where our focus needs to be."

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