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Penguins face challenging second half in NHL

| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 8:42 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby tips the puck away from Deryk Engelland during practice Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Dan Bylsma is interested in a Silver-lined run to the Stanley Cup.

His starting goalie is looking at a silver lining to the cloud of injuries that continues to hover over the Penguins.

“Last year, there was not much struggle,” Marc-Andre Fleury said. “This year, we've had more injuries than I can remember from before, and we're always the injured team, right?

“Maybe it's good, all these bumps. Maybe it gives other guys a chance to be ready for the playoffs. We'll probably need them with the way things are going.”

The Penguins begin their annual march to the postseason Thursday night. Montreal visits Consol Energy Center, and the Canadiens will be without Canadian gold-medal goalie Carey Price (lower-body injury).

Not that the Penguins will feel pity for any opponent short of a star, role player or, really, regulars.

No club is within 85 games of the Penguins' league-worst 355 man-games lost to injury.

Two weeks before the Olympic break, the Penguins looked to be a patented trade-deadline move by general manager Ray Shero from cementing their status as the clear favorite in a weak Eastern Conference.

Two days of NHL action after the Olympic break, and the Penguins look nothing like that squad.

Defenseman Kris Letang (stroke) has lost weight because he is unable to train. He is at least a month from being re-evaluated to determine whether he can stop taking blood-thinning medication.

Letang is one of two Penguins defensemen to consistently play at least 24 minutes and work with the top power play.

The other is Paul Martin, who is out at least four weeks and may yet require surgery because of a broken right hand.

Defensemen who carry heavy workloads, play in all situations and excel at moving the puck, like Letang and Martin, are the hottest of commodities.

To acquire one is costly.

To replace two has not been done by a general manager at or before the trade deadline during the salary-cap era.

This season is the first of the cap era that the upper payroll limit has decreased. The Penguins lost five regulars — wingers Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, and defenseman Douglas Murray — from last postseason's Eastern Conference finalist.

They also lost about $7 million in salary-cap space.

That all happened before a season-ending knee-surgery for top-line right winger Pascal Dupuis, whose obvious in-house replacement, 2010 first-round pick Beau Bennett, has not played since late November. Bennett is out at least another three weeks with an injured right wrist.

Dupuis and Bennett were injured before Letang was lost in late January and Martin went down during the Olympics. Letang and Martin could play again this season, but neither is a guarantee, and only Martin is projected by management as a safe bet.

Another way to look at the Penguins' current situation:

Only Fleury and the second scoring line, center Evgeni Malkin and wingers James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, are not directly impacted by injuries. The top, third and fourth lines feature replacements, and only three of the top seven defensemen were projected to be on the roster in training camp.

This is how Brian Gibbons, who has played 19 games, becomes the lead candidate to playing alongside golden Canadian Olympians Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz on the top line.

This is how Taylor Pyatt, claimed off waivers in January, figures to get another look with center Brandon Sutter, who already has played with 15 different wingers on the third line.

This is how Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres, each in Bylsma's doghouse at one point this season, are viable top-six options.

This is how Deryk Engelland moves from bottom-pairing defense to checking-line forward then back again — and back again.

This is how the Penguins are deeper in goal, with veteran Tomas Vokoun's impending return after not playing this season because of a blood clot, than at any other position.

Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz and Neal face the pressure of carrying the Penguins offensively as they try to perfect a new left-wing lock defensive system that theoretically will be better for the tight-checking playoffs.

The fresh faces around them, from Gibbons to Despres to goalie Jeff Zatkoff, at least don't look unfamiliar because they have played long stretches this season.

There is a “different feel” in the room than a year ago, Neal said. Then Shero, armed with rare cap space, swung four deals before the deadline passed.

Another run of trades, Neal said, “is something we don't worry about.”

“From Day 1, I think we all had a pretty good idea of who we were going into the playoffs with,” Neal said. “We had a core group of guys, and it was going to be up to us even if there were injuries.”

The trade deadline is 3 p.m. March 5, and Shero hinted Tuesday it could pass without him making a move for only the second time in eight seasons.

Asking prices are high in a seller's market, Shero said.

“I wouldn't put anything past Ray,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

“But if we don't make any moves, maybe it's because management knows what is has in some of our younger guys. We've been dealing with injuries since training camp, and these guys have come in and played well, and it looks like some of them are going to keep getting that chance.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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