Eaton's absence softens Penguins
Nearly nine weeks is a long time for the Penguins to await the return of one of their most indispensable players.
To be sure, defenseman Mark Eaton has proven just that since he sustained a dislocated left wrist early in the first period against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 4.
"He is such a great defensive player," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said of Eaton, with whom he was paired prior to the injury. "He's one of those guys that you don't always notice, but he is always in the right place and doing the right thing. He was a big part of this (defensive) unit. Obviously, we miss him."
Prior to Eaton receiving a nasty shove into the boards from San Jose's Johathan Cheechoo in the Sharks' 3-2 victory at HP Pavilion, the Penguins were riding a five-game winning streak and had earned 14 points.
Since, they have won just four matches and totaled only 12 points over 13 contests.
Earlier this month, Eaton underwent a surgery that involved inserting several screws into his left wrist to help it heal.
On Tuesday, Eaton said he does not expect to rejoin the lineup before February.
The Penguins hope to be in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot by then, but it might be difficult without Eaton.
Before Eaton's injury, the Penguins were surrendering only 2.70 goals per game. Since, they have allowed 3.31.
Their penalty-kill efficiency has dipped from 84.4 percent to 81.6 percent.
"He was helping a lot on the (penalty kill) and giving us a chance to play solid defensive hockey," Gonchar said.
When healthy, Eaton excels at the simpler points of playing defense.
As Gonchar assessed, Eaton is not flashy. However, his positioning is often without flaw, and his instincts, especially in his zone, rival those of Gonchar, whose feel for the game among defensemen is nearly unmatched in the National Hockey League.
Ryan Whitney, in his second NHL season with the Penguins, described Eaton's play as "smart."
"You can see by watching him that he is an intelligent player," Whitney said. "He's just real solid. He's really reliable. You can trust him."
The Penguins trusted Eaton to set the tone for the defensive corps -- and he did through the first month of the season.
Eaton arrived in Pittsburgh as a free agent from Nashville this past offseason with a reputation for sacrificing his body to prevent pucks from reaching the goaltender. He led the team with 170 blocked shots.
He more than lived up to that role in October.
Seemingly, his new teammates were following Eaton's lead.
Even Sidney Crosby was putting himself on the ice and in front of pucks -- not that Eaton was happy to see such a sight.
"No, I don't think anybody here wants to see him blocking shots. That's better left to guys like me," Eaton said.
Still, it would not be a stretch to suggest that Eaton, in his absence, has proven nearly as valuable to the Penguins as Crosby.
That has made his time away even harder to digest.
"It's extremely tough," Eaton said. "Anytime you have to sit back and watch your teammates battle every night without you is frustrating. Not being able to be on the ice is killing me."
Not having Eaton on the ice isn't killing the Penguins, but it has certainly left them worse for wear.
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