Pens' Eaton continues to thrive on blue line
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Penguins have lost twice in the past six weeks, and perhaps it isn't a coincidence that defenseman Mark Eaton was under the weather on both occasions.
With the leading contender for the Hart Trophy and a galaxy of other stars in their lineup, the Penguins still never looked like a Stanley Cup team until a reliable old friend stepped back into the lineup.
“We didn't anticipate him being this effective on the ice,” assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works with the Penguins' defensemen, said about Eaton. “He's been everything we hoped for and more.”
Statistics simply don't lie.
The Penguins are 15-1 with Eaton in the lineup. When they had a 15-game winning streak broken against Buffalo, Eaton played with an illness.
He was unable to play the following night at Madison Square Garden, and the Penguins were annihilated, 6-1.
With Eaton in the lineup, the Penguins permit just 1.81 goals per game. Without Eaton, the Penguins allow 2.83 goals per game.
“The state our defense was in,” Reirden said, “we were looking for a veteran guy to come in and settle things down.”
Penalty killing had been the Penguins' Achilles' heel earlier this season, but the problem largely evaporates with Eaton in the lineup. During his 16 games, the Penguins killed 86.3 percent of their penalties.
Without Eaton, the Penguins killed 76.8 percent of their penalties.
Unsigned following the conclusion of the NHL lockout, Eaton continued working out daily, hoping his phone would ring. It finally did, and Eaton credits that hard work for his current performance.
“I didn't really expect to feel awful,” Eaton said. “I put the work in. I feel like I'm where I should be over a month in. I keep getting more and more comfortable. Just getting tuned up for the playoffs.”
The Penguins entered the season with extreme depth on their blue line and, even with Kris Letang and Paul Martin nursing injuries, boast a deep group of defensemen.
And yet, it seems almost unimaginable that Eaton — unsigned until late February — won't be in the lineup when the Penguins begin their postseason on May 1 at Consol Energy Center.
“(Tuesday's game against Carolina) sums it up for me,” Reirden said. “He played against top lines all night, close to 23 minutes, was a plus-3. What a great move by our organization to bring him back.”
Eaton's presence in the locker room also has been immeasurable.
“He's a quiet guy,” Reirden said. “The way he goes about his business, he's a real pro. But even though he's (a quiet) guy, he adds things in meetings. He says some valuable things. He takes a different stance on things than others. That's something we wanted to bring to our room.”
A final challenge remains for Eaton.
Reirden said it is likely that Brooks Orpik and Martin will be reunited in the postseason and that Douglas Murray will play with Matt Niskanen.
That leaves Letang and, presumably, Eaton. The team has not displayed the confidence in rookies Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo to allow them postseason action, and while rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland has been solid, he hasn't been as valuable as Eaton.
Letang and Eaton played together during the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup run, but Letang is a star now and demands more minutes. Can Eaton, who turns 36 in May, keep up?
“Yes,” Eaton said firmly. “Since Paulie and Tanger have been out, I've played more minutes. I'm comfortable with it. When I came back, I said I'd be OK with whatever role I'm in. If it's playing more minutes, it's a good problem to have.”