Despite run of injuries, Penguins have plenty in reserve
Defenseman Zach Trotman was chosen by the Boston Bruins with the 210th and final selection in the 2010 NHL Draft, but he finally has found relevancy with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After Trotman was drafted, he spent two seasons at Lake Superior (Mich.) State, signed with the Bruins in 2012 and received his first NHL call-up before the end of the 2013 calendar year.
He played in 67 games over three seasons for the Bruins before signing with the Los Angeles Kings. That’s when injuries struck — in each of the next three seasons, including this one.
Now, injuries to defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta have thrust him into the middle of the Penguins’ final push for favorable playoff positioning. He’s healthy and happy, and he plans to stay that way, even if Letang and Maatta return and force him out of the lineup.
“It’s never easy having injuries,” Trotman said. “You work through the injury and get back in the groove again, and something else pops up and you have to start over again.
“I’ve been through it a couple times, and I’ve been able to stay with it mentally.”
He doesn’t pretend to be replacing Letang, who missed Monday’s game against the New York Rangers with a shoulder injury.
“Tanger is a guy who very few, if anybody, can replace,” he said.
But Trotman, who’s played in only 12 games with the Penguins, is one of many reserves who have stepped into lineup vacancies this season. And as the Penguins take aim at first place in the Metropolitan Division — they were one point behind the Washington Capitals entering Tuesday — he’s one reason the team has persevered and even flourished in spite of the injuries.
Letang is fourth in franchise history in average ice time (23 minutes, 49 seconds) and leads the team this season at 25:56. Few players not named Crosby are more valuable.
But the Penguins are 9-3-2 in the 14 games Letang has missed this season, scoring an average of 3.43 goals and giving up 2.57 without him.
“When a guy like that is out of the lineup, the guys have to step up,” Trotman said.
Trotman is proud to be one of those guys.
“Confidence is something you have to manufacture yourself, and it comes from playing,” he said. “Knowing they have the confidence to put me out there and they trust me to step into that role is huge.”
Letang and Maatta will return from their injuries soon, but Trotman is ready to accept whatever role results from being part of a team with a legitimate chance to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
“You get excited to be in an important role for your team, no matter how big or small that it is,” he said. “We’re all a team, and we all fall in line somewhere. It takes a group to win, and no matter where you fall on that chart, you have to be ready to go that night, whether they are going to call upon you or not.
“If you’re not in the lineup, you have to push guys in practice and make them better and make your game better.”
Defenseman Jack Johnson said he has noticed a change in the team since the outdoor game Feb. 23 in Philadelphia.
“I think the whole team has been clamping down defensively,” he said. “I noticed a big change in the outdoor game where we lost two guys in one shift. Everyone has really rallied around the ‘D,’ and the ‘D’ took a lot of pride in holding down the fort.”
That’s the kind of team effort coach Mike Sullivan demands and has led to the Penguins allowing only 13 goals in their nine victories this month.
“It’s cooperative play, and that’s what it takes to win,” Sullivan said. “I think we’re becoming a team in the sense we are a lot harder to play against. We’re defending harder. We’re defending together. It’s not isolated effort. That’s what it takes to have success in this league. It’s something we’ve been preaching all year long. We have to work together to maximize the potential we have in this room.
“When you look at the last three or four weeks of our play, I think we’re getting better and better in that regard. It’s no surprise to me the scores (against) have come down, scoring chances have come down. And I think that’s an indication of our commitment to play together and work together as a group.”
Added Johnson: “Once you get in the playoffs, it’s hard to score and if you’re loose defensively, you’re not going to go very far in the playoffs.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .