Having outstanding depth is the key to any championship run. The Pittsburgh Penguins witnessed that firsthand last spring when all-star defenseman Sergei Gonchar suffered a knee injury during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Capitals following a knee-on-knee collision with Alex Ovechkin.
Gonchar’s absence came at a critical juncture. Pittsburgh was in the midst of knotting the series, 2-2, while playing a majority of Game 4 with just five defensemen. As the series shifted back to Washington for a pivotal Game 5, the Penguins were forced to take the ice at Verizon Center without the services of their power-play quarterback, who was also a serious minutes-eater along the back end.
Pittsburgh never missed a beat as Gonchar was forced to sit out the next two games. Instead, veteran blueliner Philippe Boucher and then-rookie Alex Goligoski stepped to the plate in Games 5 and 6 to admirably fill in for Gonchar.
History might have to repeat itself once again during this year’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between Pittsburgh and the Ottawa Senators. Penguins defenseman Jordan Leopold was knocked out of Pittsburgh’s 2-1 Game 2 victory after being run from behind by the Senators Andy Sutton late in the first period.
Much like Game 4 of the Washington series last season, the Penguins’ other five defensemen – Gonchar, Goligoski, Kris Letang
, Brooks Orpik
and Mark Eaton – flawlessly took on the extra minutes to help lead Pittsburgh to a much-needed victory.
As the series heads north to Canada’s capital city beginning with Sunday’s Game 3 at Scotiabank Place, it appears the Penguins might have to move forward in the immediate future without the services of Leopold.
“I don’t have one this morning, actually,” said head coach Dan Bylsma following Saturday’s optional skate at Mellon Arena. “He did not come in. He will be re-evaluated today. He is definitely going to be day-to-day and will not be on the ice (Saturday) or (Sunday).”
Despite the loss of Leopold, who was one of the Penguins’ best defensemen down the stretch, Bylsma isn’t panicking. He knows he has the luxury of plugging veteran defenseman Jay McKee, a key member of the Penguins’ defensive core all season, into Leopold’s spot.
“Not only has he been a big part of our defense the whole year long, just the number of games he has played and the experience he has in these types of situations is something we have already drawn from him,” Byslma said. “He will have to draw upon it when he gets in there.”
“You prepare all summer and all season long to get into the playoffs,” McKee said. “You don’t want to see your teammates get hurt like that, but it opens up a spot for me. I came here for this opportunity, so it is a good feeling.”
This will not be the first postseason rodeo for McKee, a veteran of over 800 National Hockey League games. Not only does he have 55 career postseason appearances on his resume, he is also no stranger to facing the Ottawa Senators.
During McKee’s 10 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, which included an Eastern Conference championship in 1998-99, he often went head-to-head with Ottawa, one of the Sabres’ fiercest rivals. This includes two playoff series, both won by McKee’s squad, which has seen him post a solid plus-4 rating in nine playoff games against the Senators.
“I am excited to play in Ottawa,” McKee said. “It’s probably the (road) arena and team I have played in the most spending most of my career in Buffalo for 10 years. I look forward to playing there.”
McKee is also excited for the chance to re-join the Penguins’ lineup because as a native of nearby Kingston, Ontario, he will have several friends and family in attendance on Sunday evening.
McKee will likely be reunited with Goligoski, a combination which was instrumental in helping the Penguins begin the season on an 11-2 run. During those first 13 games, McKee’s veteran savvy, which saw him post a plus-9 rating during that period, allowed Goligoski to flourish at the offensive end, as the second-year blueliner ranked among the league’s top-scoring defensemen with 11 points (4G-7A) and a plus-13 rating.
McKee attributed their success to the way the two complement each other with Goligoski supplying the offensive flair and McKee providing a solid, stay-at-home presence.
“I think Alex and I, especially early in the season, we clicked right away,” McKee said. “I think we complement ourselves. … We have a pretty good balance. I’ve had success in the past with him.”
Pittsburgh has also had a lot of success on the penalty kill with McKee on the ice. Many of his team-leading 137 blocked shots occurred when the Penguins were playing a man short. His ability to disrupt scoring chances while having an active stick in passing lanes was a critical factor in the Penguins finishing the season ranked ninth in the NHL with an 84.1 success rate on the penalty kill.
“Jay is a penalty killing guy and a shot blocking guy,” Bylsma said. “He has been an excellent penalty killer for us all year long. We are adding a good asset when Jay is on the ice.”
McKee says one of the aspects of Ottawa’s game that he has learned to respect the most about the Senators from watching the first two games is their high energy level. He believes the Penguins ability to match Ottawa’s up-tempo attack is going to be a key for the Penguins as the rest of this series unfolds.
“We weren’t surprised by it,” McKee said. “They are a great hockey team that is well balanced. They have some good skill along with the hard-working type of players. It’s going to be a long, hard-fought series.”
In a salary-cap environment where the difference between one team and the next is miniscule, more and more series since the lockout seem to be long, hard-fought affairs. Having depth at all positions is a key for teams hoping to make lengthy postseason runs. Luckily for the Penguins they have proven competitors such as Jay McKee to turn to when injury strikes.