Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy are all ready to go for Game 1 of the Penguins’ opening-round series against the New York Rangers on Thursday. But it has yet to be determined who will fill the remaining two spots on Pittsburgh’s blue line.
Kris Letang remains out with a concussion and while Christian Ehrhoff skated with the team and took contact for a second straight day on Wednesday, he said after practice he will not play tomorrow night.
“Unfortunately not ready to go for Game 1, but it’s a day-to-day thing and hopefully it keeps progressing in the right direction and I can be with the guys in Game 2,” said Ehrhoff, who missed the last nine regular-season games with an upper-body injury.
And although Derrick Pouliot joined practice for the first time since sustaining an upper-body injury April 7 in Ottawa, he likely won’t be in the lineup on Thursday either.
“We’ll see how Derrick reacts to today’s practice and how he felt out there as far as him moving forward,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “But Derrick still probably needs another practice or two before he starts to get ready for games.”
That means two of the remaining three defensemen on Pittsburgh’s roster – recent call-ups Taylor Chorney, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington – will likely play in Game 1 against the Rangers.
But no matter who’s in, the Pens will be relying heavily on the two veteran defensemen who have been here all season – Martin and Scuderi – to lead the group that’s back there.
Martin, 34, has been absolutely critical in all situations. He’s gotten the toughest defensive assignments, is working the point on the top power-play unit with Letang and Pouliot both out and has been logging a lot of shorthanded minutes as well.
In addition to mentoring the younger guys, the 36-year-old Scuderi is averaging over three minutes of ice time per game on the penalty kill.
“Both are quieter guys, but in their own way, they impart a demeanor amongst our defense,” Johnston said. “So they’re a very focused group. They help each other out; they’re a team together, so to speak. You have a full team, but then you also have a subgroup. And Scuderi and Martin are the leaders back there, really, in everything that they do.
“(Assistant coach) Gary Agnew runs it and coaches it, and then Gary relies a lot on those guys as well.”
Creating cohesion among a group of six defensemen that will have two trade deadline acquisitions and two players who have spent the majority of the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton isn’t the easiest. These guys haven’t had all season to get used to each other; they’ve only had since early March at best.
But Scuderi said their experience down the stretch playing short a man for many of the games helped them come together.
“Certainly with injuries throughout the year, you're going to have to mix and match pairs and that's just part of life in this league,” Scuderi said. "But recently, especially when we go to five guys, you're going with someone different every shift and it's something you have to get used to and that's why you have a system in place so guys can move in seamlessly.”
When it comes to Chorney, Dumoulin and Harrington, all of who have yet to make their NHL postseason debuts, Martin said it’s on the veterans to make sure they’re comfortable.
“They bring that new energy, the fresh legs that we need on the back end that will be nice,” Martin said. “So just making sure they’re comfortable and that they know that we need them and that they just need to play their game. I’m sure some of them will get a little nervous and they’ll play like they don’t want to make mistakes, but I think for them, they play better when they’re just playing. We’ve got to make sure they’re comfortable back there and just playing.”
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers are a formidable opponent because of their depth. They get contributions from all four lines and their back end as well. They finished with the NHL’s third-ranked offense as a result.
Defending against that will be tremendous task, but Martin believes the Penguins’ blue line is more than capable and is looking forward to doing whatever it takes to ensure his team’s success.
“The playoffs, it’s a different game, it’s more intense, it’s more physical. It’s more fun, too,” said Martin, who rattled off four straight multi-assist games for a total of eight helpers in Games 1-4 in the Pens’ First Round matchup with Columbus last year. “It’s a big challenge, so I think for whoever we have on the back end, we believe that the guys we have in here can do the job and certain guys have down the stretch that have stepped in and filled in for us.
“So we have a good group back here, whoever they decide to play. I think as far as some of us veteran guys that have been around, maybe it’ll be a little easier for us to get some more minutes which would be nice. I think some of us like to play a little more and so hopefully that’ll be a good thing. And I think as a group, the forwards have been helping us out a lot lately on the back end when we were playing with 5 D or had guys stepping in, so I think it’s the same thing.”