When Sergei Gonchar went down with a broken left wrist on Oct. 20 against the St. Louis Blues, who would have thought that four other regulars from the blue line would join him on the shelf and it would be almost two full calendar months before the Penguins would dress the original six defenders that started the season?
After missing at least one and sometimes up to four defensemen for 22 consecutive games, the Penguins finally returned to full health when Alex Goligoski rejoined the lineup in Thursday’s 3-2 defeat of the Montreal Canadiens.
Goligoski registered two shots on goal and blocked two Montreal shots while going scoreless in 20:58 of ice time. Prior to Thursday he had missed 10 of the previous 11 games with a lower body injury. Following practice on Friday Goligoski reported no setbacks and talked about the process that will get him back to the level he was playing at before the injury bug struck.
“It takes a little bit when you miss some time but it feels good to get back out there and start trying to get back to the level I know I can play at,” Goligoski said. “Things are moving quick when you get back out there so there is a little adjustment period.
“I think it goes away pretty quick too. I think it is like getting back on a bike again in a way. You ease into it and then you are good.”
The return of Goligoski allowed the Penguins to revert to the D-pairings which helped the team jump out to an 8-1 start before the defensive corps began being decimated. Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik
, the first of the injured rearguards to return, have been together since Nov. 19. Mark Eaton and Kris Letang
, a partnership which began last season, skated together against Montreal while Goligoski teamed with Jay McKee.
Head coach Dan Bylsma says that getting familiar combinations back together allows each defenseman to perform in roles that suit his particular skill set. Because the team had to deal with so many injuries in a short period other players were forced to step up and assume additional chores which may have taken away from the tasks that best fit what a player can do.
“I think sometimes when guys are playing more minutes they are less apt to be as aggressive,” Bylsma said. “They are called on to play in different situations against different lines and it can be a little more taxing.
“When you are back in certain roles within certain pairings you are a little more comfortable making your reads, being aggressive and getting up ice like we want to do. I think that was evident guys were feeling a little more comfortable and playing more aggressive.”
Because Goligoski had been out the longest, he and McKee had gone almost a month without playing together, making it seem likely they would have the toughest transition regaining the chemistry they had earlier in the season. McKee, however, says the opposite is true because of the way they instantly clicked at training camp and how well their styles mesh.
“I have played with guys in the past like Brian Campbell who have a similar style to Alex,” McKee said. “They like to get the puck and go. If I know that I am able to set subtle picks to give them a little more space.
“(Goligoski) is the same. He knows my style and knows what I like to do. It’s just playing smart hockey and playing well together.”
Another pairing that played well together was Eaton and Letang, two players who stepped up the most during the absences of the other blueliners to assume extra minutes as they played apart from one another.
“It felt good to get back with Mark because he has been my partner since last year,” Letang said. “We know each other pretty well. It was nice to get back out there with him.”
Much like the other two pairings, Eaton and Letang have success together because Eaton offers the stay-at-home presence while Letang frequently steps up into the offensive end. Letang says communication is a key for the duo’s success.
“We talk a lot and support each other,” Letang said. “He backs me up pretty well. When I jump up into the play, which is pretty often, he backs me up.”
Bylsma talked Friday how the defense as a whole did a great job of backing each other up and supporting their partner when he had to step up into the zone to keep the puck alive. He anticipates seeing more of this as the players get back within a role they are most comfortable.
“Sometimes with injuries your guys are playing more minutes,” Bylsma said. “They are playing in D-pairings that may or may not give you the best chance to win. You may have to play a little bit out of your role.
“Now I would like to get the pairings back together that we had success with early in the season. It gives players a chance to play more in their role. That is something that I hope we can continue to have for a while here.”