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Injuries, fatigue play role in Penguins' struggles

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 7:33 p.m.
The Penguins' Jussi Jokinen fights for the puck between the Coyotes' Martin Erat (10) and David Moss in the first period Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jussi Jokinen fights for the puck between the Coyotes' Martin Erat (10) and David Moss in the first period Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

It took Dan Bylsma less than an hour.

The Penguins coach quickly canceled Wednesday's practice after an underwhelming 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday.

If that performance wasn't enough to convince Bylsma his team is out of gas — and when veterans suggest “pride” and “passion” are lacking or that something is missing — statistics support the possibility.

Eight Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Craig Adams, Tanner Glass and Jussi Jokinen — are receiving significantly more playing time this season compared to last season.

Four of those, along with 19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta, also competed in two weeks of Olympic hockey in Sochi, Russia.

Also, a new injury, this one to Malkin, has the Penguins on the fast track to 500 man-games lost, forcing the remaining healthy players into logging more minutes and greater responsibilities than in past seasons because of the historic injury pace.

Are some of the Penguins feeling fatigued because of playing more minutes than usual?

“Yeah,” Niskanen said. “Probably a little bit.”

Niskanen's analysis of the Penguins' performance against Phoenix was even more telling.

“We were just so flat that whole game,” Niskanen said. “Mentally we were flat, and the legs just weren't really there. The legs weren't going. We just played with no jam.”

Niskanen and Maatta arguably have been the Penguins' best defensive pair. However, both have displayed signs of fatigue the past two weeks. Both were guilty of mistakes on Phoenix's first goal Tuesday. Maatta had a miserable recent weekend against the Philadelphia Flyers and was burned on a late Tampa Bay goal last weekend.

“Some guys are playing more than in the past, but we should be excited about that,” he said. “People are getting opportunities right now. That should be an exciting thing.”

Nothing about these Penguins, however, is projecting excitement. They largely have looked stale following the Olympic break, compiling a 6-6-2 record. Before the break, they were 40-15-3.

Crosby suggested fatigue was an issue against the Coyotes. Two days earlier, the Penguins played the St. Louis Blues.

“We didn't really recover from an emotional game against St. Louis,” he said.

Although Bylsma's decision to cancel practice only minutes after his team turned in a lackluster performance is plenty of evidence that he is concerned about his team's energy level, he hasn't opted to rest players on many occasions.

The Penguins decided Maatta needed a rest Dec. 31, so they made the rookie a healthy scratch against the New Jersey Devils.

Will Maatta or anyone else be given a similar rest anytime soon?

“I consider lots of things,” Bylsma said earlier this week.

The Penguins could receive plenty of reinforcements by the time the Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 16. Malkin and right wing Beau Bennett, along with defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, could be back in the lineup.

“It will be nice if we can get those guys back,” Niskanen said. “We have 10 games now to figure it out.”

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

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