The Pittsburgh Penguins did not sign any free agents in January or make any trades.
Yet, it sure felt like they did.
That’s because Mark Eaton returned to the lineup after a suffering a dislocated wrist in a game Nov. 4. His return bolsters a steady Penguins defense.“There’s definitely no weak links with our defensive corps,” Eaton said. “From 1-7, we’re solid and we all have confidence in one another and confidence goes a long way. So, we like where we are right now.”
Especially with No. 3 back in the lineup.
He had only played 10 full games in a Penguins sweater before he was injured 27 seconds into his 11th contest when San Jose’s Jonathan Cheechoo shoved him into the boards, causing the injury. However, his impact on Pittsburgh’s defense was huge. His shot-blocking ability and overall work in the team’s defensive zone were keys to early season improvements in the Penguins’ overall defense and penalty-killing.
Eaton made his return to the ice on Jan. 26 in Dallas.
“It was way too long. Any kind of injury is too long, but three months, especially,” he said. “So, it was tough sitting there watching your teammates go out and compete without you every night. It’s great to be back in there. Although, the first two games, I didn’t feel the way I did at the beginning of the year, but I felt better as I went, so I’m looking forward to keeping it going.”
Eaton came back in style. He was on the ice for 18:21 in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 overtime shootout win over Dallas. He logged 15:47 and was a plus-1 the next night as the Penguins wrapped up a two-game roadtrip with a 7-2 pounding of Phoenix.
“Physically, you can get yourself ready, but just timing issues and thinking the game as fast as the game happens out there, that’s something you can’t prepare for, you can only improve on through game situations,” he said.
Eaton continues to progress.
“I felt better as I went. I expect my workload to increase every game and increase to the 20- or 23-minute mark,” he said. “That’s not up to me, that’s up to the coaches, so I’ll take the workload, whatever they give me.”
That workload continues to increase. He is seeing more time on the power play and penalty kill. And, he has reunited with Sergei Gonchar on the team’s No. 1 defensive pairing.
Eaton’s play is crucial for the Penguins’ special teams success. In 69 games with Nashville a year ago, he led all Predators in blocked shots with 170 and ranked fifth on the team in average ice time (19:43). He led Nashville and ranked seventh in the league in average short-handed ice time per game (5:22) on a team that ranked fifth in the league in penalty killing success.
The Penguins’ penalty-killing units were slowly rising up the NHL rankings, while the team’s power play has been red-hot.
“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing out there,” he said. “If you can win the special teams battle, you’re going to have a pretty good chance to win the game.”
Eaton’s return to the ice came at a pivotal time, too, for the Penguins. They are locked in a tightly-contested battle for one of the eight Eastern Conference playoff berths. After Tuesday’s win over Nashville, the Penguins face a busy stretch with 29 games in 59 days to close the regular season, which averages to nearly one game every other night.
They play nine more games in 21 days this month, 17 games in 31 days in March and three games in seven days in April.
“Other than the playoffs, this is the most-exciting time of the year – the stretch run and being right in the thick of things is right where we wanted to be at the beginning of the year,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun stretch for us.”