Pittsburgh Penguins’ Head Coach Dan Bylsma has one more delicate decision to make in the playoffs that could make or break the Stanley Cup aspirations of his team. He needs to find a sixth defenseman who is not a liability when awarded ice-time. Bylsma has yet to find a sixth defenseman who can be held accountable this playoff year. When Brooks Orpik was injured with a lower-body injury to begin the playoffs, Bylsma had no choice but to choose from one of his lesser skilled defenseman.
With the way in which the regular season played out, Mark Eaton was listed as the sixth defenseman on the Pens’ depth chart. Deryk Engellend, based on playing time, was considered the seventh defenseman behind Eaton. There was plenty of juggling with the Pens’ back end throughout the regular season, but Engellend got the call in the place of Orpik to begin the playoffs. These arrangements were short-lived as the Islanders’ forwards gave the Pens’ defense all they could handle.
Engellend was only one of many players behind the Pens’ defensive deficiencies in the Islanders’ series, but he was eventually chosen to become a healthy scratch. Benching Engellend was not a difficult decision. He was on the ice for two goals against in Game 2 when the New York Islanders overcame a two-goal deficit to beat the Pens 4-3.
Simon Despres was the next defenseman to get a shot. He was penciled into the Pens’ line-up for Game 3. Despres is a faster skater and better puck-mover than Engellend. Bylsma felt Despres’ speed would jump start a struggling Pens’ defense against the Islanders. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Despres’ first two shifts in Game 3 each resulted in Islanders’ goals. In his few shifts after the second goal, Despres continued to struggle coughing up the puck. Despres was minimized to nine shifts and only six minutes of ice-time in the game. The Pens’ were virtually playing with five defensemen. Despres eventually bounced back in Game 5 and 6, but his inconsistent play was such a cause for concern that he was scratched to start the series against the Ottawa Senators.
Eaton seemed to have the sixth defenseman spot locked up after being entered into the line-up in the regular season. Eaton’s first game back in a Pens’ uniform was the beginning of the team’s 15 game winning streak. Due to his immediate success, everyone was convinced the old Eaton was back and ready for a playoff run. Despite what we may have believed, the Islanders’ forwards were too fast for Eaton. He was a minus-two in Game 3 and Game 4, and this provided the support behind Bylsma’s decision to make Eaton a healthy scratch following the Pens’ Game 4 defeat.
To begin the Senator’s series, Bylsma again inserted Engellend into the line-up. As was the case in the Islanders’ series, the opening contest was an easy win for the Pens. The Senators came with a grittier effort in Game 2 and nearly stole a road game in Pittsburgh. Of the three goals surrendered by the Pens’ in Game 2, Engellend was on the ice for two of them. The other tally for the Sens was a power play goal.
“We gave up some pretty good chances tonight,” said Matt Niskanen. “Vokie (Tomas Vokoun) had to shut the door on a couple breakaways in the second (period). They were dangerous at times in the game even though they didn’t have a lot of shots.”
The Sixth Sense
The nagging problem Bylsma hasn’t been able to solve is who to dress as the sixth defenseman. Everyone he’s played in the sixth spot has been susceptible to poor play. Even though the Pens are up 2-0 in their series against the Sens, Bylsma needs to find a solution to this problem sooner rather than later. This issue could still end up costing them a game or the series against the Sens. If the Pens happen to knock out the Sens, they are going to face an opponent with much better offensive talent deeper in the playoffs. Not solving this glaring issue may allow for the Sens to gain life in the series. No playoff team is in jeopardy of losing their series until they lose a playoff game at home.
“We’re going to their barn now,” said Niskanen. “They’re going to have a big push back in Game 3. We got to be ready for it. We set ourselves up for a good series. We just have to continue to build.”
Bylsma should give Eaton another opportunity to play in Game 3 on Sunday. Although the Islanders gave Eaton more than he could handle, the Sens do not have as much speed or offensive talent as the Islanders. Eaton is a proven veteran who knows how to cure his mistakes and is the most trust-worthy out of Bylsma’s choices. With the return of Jason Spezza, Scotia Bank Place is going to be rocking in Game 3, but this won’t disturb Eaton’s play. He has proven experience in similar situations and is obviously itching to get a second chance. Eaton is Bylsma’s best option to sure up the Pens’ sixth defenseman spot and needs to suit up Sunday night.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.