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Pens' defense still in flux

Ryan Whitney finished his three-game sentence at left wing and moved back to his familiar spot on the blue line Monday night for the Penguins' 2-1 overtime loss at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.

"I played 'D' the whole game, and it felt good," Whitney said. "I was glad to be back there."

Though defense is his normal position and one he has played throughout his collegiate and professional careers, he admitted to being somewhat discombobulated moving to the blue-line after three games at forward.

"It felt a little different from the start, and you have to get used to it again," Whitney said.

While Whitney reclaimed his spot, rookie Kristopher Letang was the odd man out of the team's six-man defense rotation. It was the first time he sat since being recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League on Nov. 14, ending a streak of 61 consecutive games played.

"I didn't really have a good game against the Islanders (Thursday), and before I was playing good," Letang said. "I didn't play bad, but (coach Michel Therrien) said to keep working hard. We have seven 'D' and we have a really deep team defense. I'm 20 years old, and I take it that I have to continue to work hard and get better and wait to get back in the lineup."

Therrien's machinations have occasionally surprised, such as using Whitney and Brooks Orpik on the left wing in an effort to jump-start their games at the expense of continuity on the forward lines. Yet, there remains one constant as the Penguins head toward the postseason. Unless Therrien decides to dress seven blue-liners and stop implementing four full lines, something he has been loath to do throughout the season, one defenseman will have a grey swivel chair in the press box with his name on it.

Therrien allowed his assistants to run the team's optional practice yesterday and was unavailable for comment.

Though someone likely will be the odd man out, it doesn't mean he won't see it coming. Each of the seven defensemen plays a different style of game, whether it's the all-around solid play of Sergei Gonchar or a stay-at-home physical presence of Hal Gill, which enables the blue-liners to play off the others.

Having this type of blue-line confusion with only two games remaining in the regular season may be confusing to some, but the players are preparing as though they'll each fit into the postseason equation.

"I think a lot of roles are defined," Whitney said. "I think my role is defined as a defenseman that I've got to be responsible defensively, and I know that (Therrien's) been frustrated with me, but I think everyone kind of knows their roles and we're a team that knows what's going on, where each guy should be and which guy you have to play ."

One scenario could further jumble the equation. If the Penguins get past the second round of the playoffs and into the Eastern Conference finals, defenseman Mark Eaton could return to the mix. Eaton has been out since Dec. 23, when he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament. A mid-May return could congest an already crowded back line.

Eaton skated around lightly for several minutes yesterday and took a few wrist shots at an open net before returning to the dressing room.

"It felt good. Even though it was short, it gave me something to look forward to," Eaton said. "I have another doctor's visit in about 10 days, so hopefully he gives me a clean bill and a green light to start picking up the intensity and hopefully hitting the ice."

Having Eaton back could enhance the Penguins' depth, something they haven't had throughout an injury-ravaged regular season.

"Something we have to take advantage of in the playoffs is each guy knowing his role and doing his job," Whitney said. "Playoff hockey is all about battles in the corner and in front of the net, and all of our 'D' are going to have to play solid defensively."

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