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Pens' defensemen "up for the challenge"

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

Half step forward, one step back.

That seems to best sum up the Penguins' injury situation this season, including recent developments.

Following Monday's practice, head coach Mike Sullivan said that defenseman Justin Schultz is very close to returning to team practice after missing six games with a lower-body injury. He then added that winger Patric Hornqvist, who left during the practice, is being evaluated for a lower-body injury.

And this comes a day after defenseman Brian Dumoulin underwent surgery on lacerated tendons in his left ankle that will put him out of the lineup for a minimum of eight weeks.

Half step forward, one step back.

Or in Dumoulin's case, maybe two steps back.

"He's one of the backbones of this team and it will be a tough spot to fill," blueliner Marcus Pettersson said. "You know what you get from him every night. He's so consistent, and he plays big minutes."

Dumoulin suffered the injury after a single shift in Saturday's 5-2 setback in St. Louis against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues. The Penguins' five remaining defenseman fought admirably for what amounted to an entire game (minus 35 seconds), but fatigue would eventually be their downfall in the end.

"I thought they fought hard," Sullivan said after the game. "I thought we made some fatigued mistakes in the third period that maybe we wouldn't have made if we had a guy like 'Dumo.'"

The Penguins have suffered 100 man-games lost this season, and many of the injuries have been to top players. Out now are Dumoulin, Schultz, captain Sidney Crosby and forwards Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad. Meanwhile Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Jared McCann have also missed time to injury.

The Penguins have suited up a fully healthy squad for a grand total of two periods. Two. A mere 40 minutes. Yet, Pittsburgh has managed to stay afloat despite the circumstances. And a lot of that stems from the top.

"All we can do is control the controllables," Sullivan said Monday. "Some of this stuff is out of our control. Guys get hurt. It's part of the game. Every team goes through it. We're no different. We just have to make sure we keep our mindset in the right place. That always starts with the head coach."

Still, the hits keep coming. But this is a group that has never backed down.

"This group is up for a challenge," Pettersson said. "We've been through this before with injuries. We know that we have to come together as a group even more, and play structured even more.

"It's going to be a tough stretch of games, but we're up for the challenge."

Pettersson will be one of those defensemen expected to pick up some of the 21:04 minutes per game that Dumoulin typically shouldered.

"I haven't been playing the way I wanted to the last couple weeks, and I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to show that I can be reliable and responsible," Pettersson said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Letang will continue to eat his 25-plus minutes worth per game. The rest of the minutes will be spread out among the remaining blueliners, Jack Johnson, John Marino, Pettersson, Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola and Zach Trotman. 

"The guys in the room that are healthy right now and in the lineup are worried about winning the next game," Jack Johnson said. "The guys will get back as soon as they can. If we can keep this thing rolling, when those guys get back and are healthy then we should be a in a good spot."

The Penguins have fought the good fight through all of the injuries this season. The team hasn't made excuses or felt sorry for itself. The players will need to keep pulling together and fighting until they get healthier.

Sullivan said: "It boils down to hard work, belief in oneself and belief in the group as a whole."

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