Pittsburgh’s matchup with the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night was significant in one regard. No, the outcome did not end up in the Penguins’ favor – the Devils won by a 4-1 margin. What was significant were injuries – or the lack thereof suffered by the home team after a rash of recent bumps, breaks and bruises had depleted the back end.
Beginning with a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 20, and continuing through a recent stretch where Kris Letang
suffered a shoulder contusion at San Jose last Saturday and Brooks Oprik left the lineup Tuesday in Boston with a lower-body injury, the M*A*S*H unit has piled high on the Penguins blue line. Veteran Mark Eaton has stepped to the plate and not only assumed a larger leadership role, but also seen his minutes shoot up as the Penguins battle through this difficult stretch.
“I don’t think you will ever hear anybody complain about getting more ice time,” Eaton said on Friday. “It is an unfortunate part of the game, but it does happen with the injuries. It is up to the healthy guys to pick up their game a bit and fill the void.”
Eaton has filled the void in a huge way, as his average ice time has increased from 19:24 before Gonchar’s injury to 20:17 since. A 53-second increase might not seem drastic, but at this point in the season the standard deviation in averages does not fluctuate much, making such a jump all the more impressive. To better put into perspective, Eaton played over 20 minutes three times in nine games prior to Oct. 20, but in the 10 games since, he has gone over that mark in seven contests.
“Regardless of how many minutes I play, my game is not going to change. I know what I am supposed to do and I know my role whether I am playing 17 minutes or 24 (minutes). I am going to play the same way and not really give it a second thought.”
Eaton spent a majority of the early season playing the left side on a pairing with the offensively-gifted Letang. He began Tuesday’s game in Boston matched up with Martin Skoula, but none of the defensive combinations were together long following Orpik’s departure early in the first period.
“That comes with the injuries,” Eaton said. “Through the course of the year and during training camp I think everybody has played with each other so playing with different guys isn’t too much of an adjustment. Everybody here knows their job and what they are supposed to do so it is an easy transition.”
Eaton teamed with Deryk Engelland
against the Devils, impressing the recent Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-up with his leadership ability and poise.
“He definitely helped me out with a lot of talk, directing me where to go,” Engelland said. “He is talking almost every play so you just listen for him and do what he says. It worked out for the most part last night.
“He plays simple and doesn’t make too many fancy plays. He just gets the puck up (to the forwards) and plays solid defensively. That makes it easy for me as well. That is my type of game, to keep it simple, so (the pairing) worked out well.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
, who has spent the past four seasons playing behind Eaton, appreciates how well the 32-year-old Eaton has answered the increased workload.
“Mark has been around for a while now and I always like to have him in front of me,” Fleury said. “He is a guy who works hard all the time … he plays real well defensively in the zone. He blocks a lot of shots. I always feel good when he is out there.”
Because he enjoys having Eaton out there, and with casualties mounting with what seemes like every game, Fleury was asked if he maybe cringes a bit these days watching Eaton and the other healthy blueliners sacrificing their bodies in front of 90-plus MPH slap shots.
“No. They have been doing it for so many years and they are so solid at it. Sometimes I see them fall down and I say, ‘Oh, no.’ But then they get up and keep playing.”
Luckily for Fleury, Eaton has zero plans to change the way he plays the game, so he will only continue to build upon the 36 blocked shots he has registered through the first 19 games, 11th best mark in the Eastern Conference.
“No, it never crosses your mind,” said Eaton of possibly trying to avoid situations such as blocking shots in spite of the team’s current injury situation. “The second you worry about getting hurt or try to prevent getting hurt, is the second you will get hurt. You never go out there thinking about it. More often than not it is just fluky things that cause injuries. It is nothing that can be prevented so you never give it a second thought.”