The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to take on their division rival tonight without six healthy defensemen. It’s not just that they’re dressing five defenders, it’s that the defenders they are missing are some of their best. The five defensemen the Penguins will dress tonight will be Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Derrick Pouliot, Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin. Star defender Kris Letang remains out with a concussion and Christian Ehrhoff is still out with a undisclosed upper body injury.
Cole spoke to Sam Kasan of the official site of the Penguins and had this to say about playing a man down:
Everyone needs to step up, every single guy, all five of us have to step up and take on more minutes, more responsibility, create more and help out as much as we can. It’s exciting. I get to play a lot more. I get to be in the flow of the game. That part is a positive as long as you don’t get too tired.
While Cole might have a positive take on the injury woes, heading towards the playoffs without two of your best defenders is never a good thing. Yes, the defenders playing can feel the flow of the game better and are able to take advantage of the extra ice time, but the current defensive corps lack the puck moving ability that Letang and Ehrhoff have.
That is a killer, especially in rookie head coach Mike Johnston’s uptempo puck possession system. While Martin, Pouliot and Lovejoy all are capable of effective puck movement and aid the Pittsburgh Penguins’ transitions, Scuderi and Cole simply do not have the skill set to do so.
Missing Letang and Ehrhoff will undoubtedly show against the Philadelphia Flyers and could cause the Penguins to lose this heated rivalry game. Martin had this to say about taking on the Flyers despite their elimination from playoff contention (also from Kasan’s post):
No matter how the year goes for us or them, it’s always a big rivalry and the games are heated, a lot of emotion and intensity in them. I’m sure I wouldn’t expect anything different.
The Penguins’ defensive corps, as a whole, have had one of their best seasons is recent history, but I do not think the depth is good enough to beat the Flyers. As Martin said, he isn’t expecting anything different and from studying the Penguins’ games against the Flyers. I can say it does not matter how well the Penguins or Flyers are playing coming into the game. These contests are always explosive, physical and bring the best (and worst) out of each team.
The keyword there is physical. Letang isn’t the biggest player but can dish out hits when he needs to. Ehrhoff’s big body will be missed in this clash, as he stands at 6’2″ 205 lbs and is one of the Pittsburgh Penguins more effective hitters.
So why haven’t the Pittsburgh Penguins called up an AHL player to fill out their roster? Especially when you have NHL-ready prospects Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington waiting with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Given that Letang and Ehrhoff are not on long-term injured reserve, the Penguins do not have any cap space to bring a single player up. In fact, the only eligible player to be sent down is the stellar 21-year-old defender Derrick Pouliot, and sending a defenseman down when you’re lacking a defender does nothing to alleviate the problem.
The Penguins have resorted to playing forward Daniel Winnik as a defender at times when playing a shorthanded lineup. While he has done an admirable job, there is no room for error against the Flyers.
One thing that is more prevalent in Penguins-Flyers games are the rapid momentum shifts. One goal can lead to two or three more in a hurry, and this is why the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t rely upon Winnik to play as a defender against the Flyers.
In order to win the game tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins need to keep Martin, Lovejoy, Pouliot and Cole on the ice as much as possible with Scuderi rotating in. I have serious doubts about Pittsburgh’s ability to win any given game without a fully healthy defensive corps, let alone against the Flyers.
Regardless of how the Pittsburgh Penguins deploy their defense, the game tonight will be phenomenal and should live up to the reputation of past contests. Pittsburgh will be motivated to maintain their playoff spot, while the Flyers are going to be out to show up their division rival and prove that they’re the better team in the Keystone state.