TAMPA BAY, Florida -- Pens center Nick Bonino was sent back to Pittsburgh after suffering an injury against the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night.
Bonino’s absence creates a hole in the lineup. Luckily, forward Eric Fehr is there to step in if called upon.
Fehr, who is a natural center, has played wing all season for the Pens. While it would take some adjusting, moving back to center would be a smooth transition for Fehr, who prefers to play in the middle.
“It’s a position I feel more comfortable in,” Fehr said after Wednesday’s practice at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. “It will be a change if I get back to the middle. You get into a rhythm with whatever position you’re in when you’re not thinking, you’re just moving, you’re just reacting. When you switch positions you have to get into that groove again.
“It takes a game to get your routes back, your timing back. It really is a different game in the middle than on the wings. It’s a lot more skating. It’s a longer, 200-foot game. It’s a lot more read and react as opposed to the wing.”
The biggest area of adjustment may come in the faceoff circle. After all, you can only practice against your teammates so much. The real test and learning curve occurs during game action.
“You can practice it as much as you want, but once you get into a game it’s a lot different,” Fehr said. “It’s just a big game of rock, paper, scissors against the other team’s centerman. That’s part of the battle. Once you get that first one it’s mind games the rest of the way.”
Fehr, 30, missed the season’s first 10 games while still recovering from off-season elbow surgery. He returned to the lineup with a bang – scoring a shorthanded goal and notching two points in his first game back at Toronto on Oct. 31.
Since that time, Fehr has been a staple on the team’s checking line and penalty kill units. His partner in those roles has been center Matt Cullen, who has been “really impressed with (Fehr’s) game all year.”
“He’s a really underrated player. He does a lot of good things,” Cullen said. “He’s got that long reach and he’s so effective at freeing up pucks offensively and on the penalty kill as far as taking away passing lanes and taking away plays. I really enjoyed playing with him.”
Fehr and the rest of the PK unit had killed 27 consecutive power plays until Carolina’s Jeff Skinner scored the overtime winner Tuesday night. The Pens’ PK ranks fifth in the NHL with an 84.8-percent success rate.
“We take a lot of pride in (the PK). It’s unfortunate the streak came to an end, but we’re going to try to start a new one,” Fehr said. “We take pride in streaks and getting our percentages up and moving up in the PK standings. It’s just trying to get momentum for our team. It’s huge when you get a kill.”
And Fehr and the PK unit have chipped in offensively at times. He’s scored a career-high three shorthanded goals.
“When you’re on the power play you’re not in a defensive mindset. I think you have a little leeway there to make some plays where guys aren’t defending you as tough as they would 5-on-5,” Fehr said.
Whether Fehr moves to center or stays on the wing remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, his versatility is a major asset to the Pens.
“I think he’s helped us in a lot of areas,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s played on a checking line that we use in a lot of critical situations. He’s been a huge part of the penalty kill. I think those roles are vitally important to help the team win.
“I think he’s played an important role in helping this team win.”
Note: Center Evgeni Malkin was given a maintenance day on Wednesday and did not practice.