Martin is next man up for Pens' defense
The Penguins saw their revolving door of defensemen take another turn Tuesday night when Kris Letang returned against the Buffalo Sabres only to see Brooks Orpik leave with a lower-body injury.
“That's not an easy thing to do, to lose a guy like that in the first period in back-to-back situations,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “The other guys, the five of us, just kind of collectively tried to eat up those minutes and play a little bit more. There's not much you can do, other than suck it up and play.”
Where Letang played a team-high 28 minutes, 16 seconds against Buffalo and Deryk Engelland registered a season-high 21:51, 30-somethings Douglas Murray (33) and Mark Eaton (35) also got plenty of ice time in what was a meaningless game. The Penguins have clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference with two games remaining: Thursday at New Jersey and against Carolina Saturday at Consol Energy Center.
“I'm glad we didn't play like this our last game leading into the playoffs. Two more to get tuned up and, hopefully, get through without any injuries and get geared up for next week,” Niskanen said. “I think we all have that in the back of our heads, the first round of the playoffs. That's what we're building toward and what we're trying to prepare for.
“It is hard not to think about. The next two games are against teams that are out of the playoffs, and sometimes those aren't easy to play. We've just got to focus on what we can control and how we play the brand of hockey we want to play going forward.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn't blame the defensemen for the first two goals in the 4-2 loss, although both came when the puck was centered for wide-open slap shots, by Thomas Vanek in the first period and Jochen Hecht in the second. The third goal was disputed, as Steve Ott swatted it out of the air with a high stick, and the fourth was an empty netter. Despite the Penguins controlling the puck for much of the game, Buffalo attempted 33 shots on goal.
“I don't think we played our best, especially in the first half of the game, with the way we managed the puck. There were a lot of turnovers, a lot of opportunities for their guys to go the other way with speed,” Bylsma said. “We saw them do that. We saw them try to spring guys on long rushes, and they did. That's not characteristic of how we want to play and how we want to get into a game. Their shot total and opportunities they had were pretty significantly in their favor.”
The Penguins will welcome back Paul Martin, who hasn't played since March 28 because of a broken wrist, to solidify a defensive corps that has now lost its leader in Orpik. The returns of Martin and Letang, who attempted five shots and assisted on Jarome Iginla's power-play goal, should help the Penguins' puck movement. Not only is Letang a Norris Trophy candidate and the best skater of the blue-liners, he's also their top scorer among defensemen, with 30 assists and 35 points in 33 games.
“We all know what 'Tanger' can do,” Niskanen said. “He could've had three or four goals himself. He moves the puck so well, and he's our best player on the back end. We welcome him back whenever he's ready.”
Note: Anton Zloban, 20, signed an entry-level contract with the Penguins. A forward, Zloban was among the top scorers in the Quebec Major Junior league.