The Pittsburgh Penguins came out of Tuesday night’s matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets with a 4-1 win. This should have been a relief for the Penguins. With these crucial two points, they helped to ensure home-ice advantage in the playoffs. But despite the definitive win on the scoreboard, the Penguins took serious losses on the bench. These kinds of losses have plagued them for the past few months. And with less than a week left in the regular season, they are something the Penguins absolutely cannot afford right now.
An Already Tenuous Situation
At this point, the fact that Matt Cullen and Bryan Rust failed to return to the bench after suffering bad hits mid-game seems almost par for the course for the Penguins. It just doesn’t feel like a Penguins game unless another injury concern is added to the ever-growing list.
These past few months haven’t exactly been great for the Penguins’ health. This is the most injured playoff-bound team in the league we’re talking about. Evgeni Malkin, Trevor Daley, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Carl Hagelin, five core parts of the regular lineup, have each been out for an extended period of time.
The Penguins have sustained many injuries, but the hope has always been that the players would be healthy come playoff time. Coach Mike Sullivan has promised that Letang would be back for the postseason. Similar hopes are held for the other teammates on the injured list, some of whom have been recently seen skating before team practice. Daley has even been skating with the team (if in a non-contact jersey.) In this light, it can be argued that the Penguins’ long injured list is a positive thing. These key players are getting a chance to rest up before a (hopefully long) playoff run.
That argument, unfortunately, doesn’t hold up, because Penguins are continuing to get injured. The Penguins announced last weekend that Chris Kunitz is out with a longer-term lower body injury (and he was spotted using crutches on Tuesday, which is never a good sign.) Now Cullen and Rust, two crucial players lower down in the lineup, are questionable to return next game. There are three games left in the regular season. The Penguins don’t have time to heal from injuries if they sustain them now. They’re already reaching down into the depths of their farm team to fill in for the five regulars they’re already missing. The depth simply doesn’t exist to fill the holes created by new injuries in the lineup.
A High Rate of Injury
The Tuesday night matchup against the Blue Jackets was worrying in more ways than just the disappearance of Cullen and Rust from the bench. The thud of Penguins players being smashed into the glass was a regular sound during the game. Scott Wilson had to head to the locker room for examination after being shaken up on a bad hit. In this game, the Blue Jackets proved themselves to be a physical team, able to dish out big hits that the Penguins simply can’t answer. Tom Sestito, the Penguins’ closest thing to a heavy hitter, is yet another name currently on the injured list.
Another problem with keeping the Penguins healthy continues to be shot blocking. Tom Kuhnhackl was visibly shaken up after blocking a shot in this matchup with his leg; although he eventually managed to get his skates under him, for a grim moment it looked like he was going to have to limp right off the ice and make that familiar walk down to the locker room. This is a common theme–a couple games ago, Conor Sheary blocked a painful-looking shot with his hand. The Penguins shouldn’t be blocking shots with vulnerable parts of their bodies at this point in the season. There aren’t enough bodies on the ice to be giving one up for a shot like that.
The Penguins don’t have any big hitters on the roster, and they continue to sacrifice their bodies in front of shots. These aspects of the Penguins’ play–their shot-blocking, their inability to return hits–are not good qualities for a team that needs to be doing all it can to avoid further injury.
Although the Penguins won this likely first-round preview, they also gained some new worries in terms of injuries. With an already-packed injured list, the Penguins simply don’t have the depth to cover for new injuries. For the sake of a team already stretched thin by injury, we’ll hope that tomorrow’s further news about Cullen and Rust’s conditions will be positive.
Coach on Cullen and Rust: "We'll have more information on them in the morning."
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 5, 2017
On facing the Blue Jackets’ physicality, Sullivan told reporters, “I know that we’re brave. I know we play with courage. I know we can play through things.” Courage isn’t what the Penguins need to worry about right now. Maybe the focus should be less on “playing through things” and more on avoiding those things in the first place. The Penguins can’t afford to continue to sustain injuries this late in the season with an already patchy roster. Losing three players per week is an unsustainable injury rate for this team. They should be doing everything they can to avoid losing more.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.