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Penguins

Defenseman Justin Schultz comes back just in time for Penguins

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 6:21 p.m.

The last few weeks of the Penguins season has been a lot like the parade that celebrated last year's Stanley Cup championship.

It's not a lot of fun until Justin Schultz shows up.

Schultz, who achieved legendary status with some of the team's fan base by pounding beers while strolling down the Boulevard of the Allies during the aforementioned parade, returned Tuesday night against Arizona after a six-game absence because of a concussion.

He scored a first-minute goal to help the Penguins shake off some of the doldrums that plagued them on a 1-3-1 western road trip.

“He's a big-time player, for sure,” goalie Matt Murray said. “Anytime he's in the lineup, we're a better team.”

The numbers back up Murray's assessment in a fairly striking way. Schultz has played 11 and missed six of the Penguins' first 17 games. When he's in the lineup, the Penguins are 7-3-1, averaging 3.18 goals. When he's out, they're 2-3-1, averaging 1.67 goals.

At even strength, the statistics are just as telling. With Schultz, the Penguins average 1.90 goals. Without him, they average 0.67.

“He has real good offensive instincts. He sees the ice extremely well,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That's what he can bring to our team. That's what he has brought to our team.”

It's an oversimplification to suggest Schultz is the magic ingredient who solves all of the Penguins' problems just by showing up, of course. There's probably a debate to be had about correlation versus causation in this case. After all, his concussion came just before the Penguins embarked on their most grueling road trip of the year.

Still, Schultz's return has a positive effect on the team in one tangible way. It allows all six defensemen to slip into a defined role in a blue-line hierarchy that makes sense.

With Schultz around, Sullivan and assistant Jacques Martin aren't as tempted to play Kris Letang, who has struggled so far this season, 27 or 28 minutes a game. He can work a more comfortable 23 or 24 minutes, like he did Tuesday night.

“He helps us manage the minutes back there with our defensemen a lot more efficiently,” Sullivan said. “Not only does it help our team, it helps individuals and Tanger might be one of the biggest ones.”

Just as importantly, with Schultz in the lineup, the other defensemen don't have to worry about pressing their luck offensively to make up for the points he produces.

“One of the pitfalls a team struggling to score goals gets into is everyone tries to do more, and everyone tries to help and it actually makes it worse,” said Ian Cole, Schultz's most frequent defense partner. “Everyone's trying to do too much and is turning pucks over or whatever the case may be. Everyone's squeezing a little bit.

“Over the years, you come to find out the more you can stick to doing your job and winning your singular battles, that tends to get you out of a funk quicker.”

With all due respect to coach Rick Tocchet, Tuesday night's victory didn't cure all that ails the Penguins. It came over a team with a 2-13-2 record, and it's not like the Penguins poured in a flood of even-strength goals. They scored two.

The return of Schultz, though, might be the clearest indication the scoring slump that has dragged down the Penguins for the better part of the last two weeks is close to coming to an end.

“For me, I always want to try to jump in the play and create offense, but you don't want to overdo it,” Schultz said. “Goals are going to come if you're getting chances. It's just a matter of time.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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