Christian Ehrhoff has been a participant in Pittsburgh Penguins’ practices this week after missing most of the last month with what is figured to be his third bout of concussion symptoms this season.
That’s good news for a Penguins defense that has been otherwise decimated for most of this season and especially throughout an awful stretch run.
Tuesday, from the Penguins,
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who missed the last nine regular-season games with an upper-body injury, also practiced, his first with contact, and is listed as day-to-day.
“He went through practice, we had a good, hard practice,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “He’ll be day-to-day right now.”
If he’s on track to make his return in the East Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers — and as of last update, Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot were both ruled out for Game 1 — his eventual return should prove a massive boost to the Penguins’ defense corps.
After all, getting Ehrhoff back would give the Penguins an entire half of their top-four defense group.
That, somehow, is an upgrade.
Much has been made of what led the Penguins to the edge of the abyss at season’s end. Despite carrying some 99 percent odds to make the postseason all the way up to the final week of the calendar, the Penguins rob-dobbed themselves nearly out of the picture.
Pittsburgh won just four of their final 15 games (4-9-2 in that span) to fall to the final playoff spot in the East, and contributors to the downfall were many. The team’s shooting percentage fell off a cliff. Familiar division foes continued to skate circles around them.
More than anything, however, injuries simply took the gas out of the Penguins.
That’s most true on defense, where the Pens had to finish out the year with an inexcusable, self-made rotation of five defensemen. With Olli Maatta and Kris Letang on the mend and unavailable for the playoffs, only Paul Martin was participating in the stretch run games as a member of the team’s designed top-four group. Even Derrick Pouliot, the would-be puck mover who should slot into that group in the case of injury, missed the season’s final games with an injury.
With the series against the Rangers set to open this evening, Pittsburgh’s group got at least a little relief. Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington have been recalled from Wilkes-Barre with no cap issues to tackle (salary cap limits apply only to the regular season). Pouliot is skating and considered day-to-day. Relief, even if only a little, is on the way.
No addition to the group would provide a bigger boost than Ehrhoff, though.
Since being acquired last offseason on a thrifty one-year, $4 million deal, Ehrhoff was set to join the Penguins’ stellar group of puck-moving defensemen. The situation would allow him to rediscover his offensive touch and roll into this offseason with the chance to earn another big contract after his last one was bought out by Buffalo in 2014.
The plan did not go accordingly. Ehrhoff has been injured for much of the season, missing 33 games (and counting) while dealing with three bouts of concussion symptoms. His line of 3-11-14 in those 33 games puts him at just above half of his career points-per-game averages, and he saw only mop-up duty on the second power play unit despite possessing one of the best point shots in the game.
With Letang and even Martin ahead of him to take those power play and top-pairing minutes, Ehrhoff’s limited time this season was limited even further by assignments.
Now, with Martin the last man standing among the team’s core defense group, Ehrhoff could return to much greater responsibility, and opportunity, than he saw at any point in the regular season.
Pittsburgh will at least have six healthy defenders through the first round, but will still be loathe to play their AHL guys for any significant amount of time. Ehrhoff’s return should see him eat up top-pairing minutes with a chance at the top power play unit. While Martin is the likely candidate to take the point on the top power play, Ehrhoff has the tools to break the team’s man-advantage group out of its inexplicable funk.
This is all a lot to ask of a player who hasn’t seen game action in nearly a month. However, the pieces are in place for Ehrhoff to finally have the impact on this team that many thought he could when he signed in Pittsburgh last offseason.
If the Penguins are to have even a puncher’s chance of hanging with a healthy, heavy Rangers group, they’ll need him to.