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Return of injured players could aid Penguins' team chemistry

| Monday, March 17, 2014, 10:42 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Beau Bennett and James Neal skate during practice Monday, March 17, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

It could be argued that the Penguins didn't show up against the Flyers last weekend.

The Penguins showed up at Monday's practice — literally.

While having players like right wing James Neal, left wing Chris Kunitz, right wing Beau Bennett and defenseman Kris Letang perhaps close to returning to the lineup is a positive development, such a transition hasn't historically been an easy one for the Penguins.

One year ago, the Penguins acquired forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen — along with defenseman Douglas Murray — in the days leading up to the trade deadline. They also welcomed back injured standouts Sidney Crosby, Neal and Paul Martin to the lineup within days of the postseason's start.

With nearly half the team new to the lineup when the playoffs began, the Penguins were spectacular on paper but ordinary on the ice. They don't want to suffer the same fate this spring, and don't believe they will.

“I think there is a significant difference this year,” coach Dan Bylsma said.

Although the Penguins have new additions in center Marcel Goc and right wing Lee Stempniak, the returning players generally are familiar with one another and Bylsma's system.

This, the coach believes, will lead to a simpler transition than in previous years.

“If Chris Kunitz comes back (Tuesday against Dallas),” Bylsma said, “I'm pretty sure we know where he's playing. If James Neal comes back, we know where he's going.”

A possibility exists that Neal and Kunitz could return to the lineup against Dallas. Neal has missed two games with a concussion but said he felt better after returning to practice Monday. Kunitz missed the weekend games against Philadelphia because of a leg injury suffered against Washington, but he also could return.

“Nice seeing everyone back,” Goc said. “I haven't played with all of these guys yet, but there are great players here. I think we'll figure it out.”

Although there is familiarity in this lineup, one big question remains. How will the Penguins' most talented defensemen play with its most recent, high-priced acquisition?

Defenseman Rob Scuderi was signed last summer largely to be a stable partner for Letang. He's rarely been given the opportunity, as the duo has both suffered a rash of injuries.

Letang and Scuderi played together for a couple of weeks before Letang suffered a stroke, removing him from the lineup for seven weeks and counting.

Scuderi admits that having a chance to play a handful of games together before the playoffs would bode well for the blue-liners.

“I think there is still time,” he said. “The one thing the playoffs do is they heighten your awareness,” Scuderi said. “When you step into that atmosphere, you really feel it, and you get to your game in a hurry. It's unfortunate because I felt like we were finally starting to get some chemistry.

“We had two or three really good games in a row. Things started to feel good. If he can come back soon, I think there will be plenty of time.”

Time is on the Penguins side for now.

But the playoffs are only five weeks away, and adding some chemistry to the lineup could do wonders for these Penguins, who are suddenly showing signs of being healthy.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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