As deep as the Pittsburgh Penguins are, even they cannot withstand a series of injuries, as shown by their lost weekend.
The Penguins stretched their losing streak to three games with back-to-back losses to the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday and Saturday. And Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma admits the parade of players to the sidelines is putting too much pressure on superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The losses started a week ago when the Colorado Avalanche wunderkinds edged the Penguins 1-0 after Pittsburgh opened the NHL season with seven consecutive wins to vault to the top of the Metropolitan Division. In all three losses, Crosby logged more than 23 minutes of ice time, with Malkin not far behind.
"I think the injuries we've had have forced us in some situations to lean on 87 [Crosby] in a lot of different areas," Bylsma said after the Penguins lost 4-1 to the Leafs. "To play against other teams' top lines, it's a lot of minutes he's logged, 71 [Malkin] has logged.
"A lot of our games, regardless of the injuries, haven't had a lot of flow to them for our other lines to contribute."
The injuries didn't stop on the weekend, either. Just after the Penguins got defenceman Kris Letang in the lineup for the first time this season, they lost his partner off the No.1 pairing in the first period of the Leafs game. Rob Scuderi took a shoulder-on-shoulder hit from Leafs winger David Clarkson, fell awkwardly to the ice and left favouring his left leg. Bylsma said he had no "definitive news" on what he called a "lower-body injury."
Scuderi joins forwards James Neal and Beau Bennett on the injured list. That may not be a long list but Neal, who has yet to play this season because of an undisclosed injury, and Bennett were supposed to be Malkin's wingers this season. This has left Malkin playing with a revolving cast of mostly third-liners, with Jussi Jokinen and Matt D'Agostini on his wings against the Leafs.
It has also left the first line of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis carrying the scoring load, with diminishing returns. Crosby ran up 17 points in that 7-0 start but all he has is one goal during the three-game losing streak. Leaf centre Dave Bolland and defenceman Dion Phaneuf combined to keep Crosby pointless on Saturday.
Once you get past Crosby's line, the Penguins forward ranks are dotted with names such as Chuck Kobasew, Tanner Glass and Deryk Engelland, the enforcer who usually plays defence. They strike fear only into their own coaches. After Scuderi was hurt, Engelland had to go back to defence for some shifts, which left Bylsma mixing and matching up front.
By the third period on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, both Crosby and Malkin were showing the strain of the extra work. The Leafs survived a Penguins onslaught in the second thanks to goaltender James Reimer and then scored three times in the third for the win. By the end of the game, Crosby was on the ice for 23 minutes 33 seconds, which was almost as much as he skated the night before, logging 24:10 against the Islanders. Malkin had a total of 42:31 ice time in the same 24 hours.
That might be why there was a pattern to each of the three losses.
"The three games, while they're a little bit different, have a similar theme to them," Bylsma said. "We carry the play, outshoot them, in the second period in particular we had a lot of offensive-zone time [against the Leafs], then come out in third period, we force a puck, make a turnover, and it turns into an odd-man rush for them and they get the winning goal."
The problem is, the late lapses are coming sooner. Against the Islanders, the Penguins did not let the lead slip away until the last six minutes. Against the Leafs, the Penguins outshot them 16-4 in the second period but could not break a 1-1 tie and the Leafs struck at 1:26 of the third for the winning goal.
"I think the last couple have been a little uncharacteristic the way we finish games," Crosby said. "Against the Islanders, we had the game in our hands and let it slip away. [Saturday night], for the first two periods we were pretty good; carried the play, didn't give them much and then slipped in the third.
"We have to do a better job when the game gets close and turned up a bit. We have to find a way to either shut teams down or score the next goal."
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