FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2017, file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins' Scott Wilson (23) reacts following an injury during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. From Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Quick to Henrik Lundqvist and almost the entire Penguins defense, significant injuries have altered the NHL playoff chase since the fall. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
How much is too much to overcome when it comes to injuries for the Penguins?
They have done a masterful job of weathering the storm to this point in the season, but might have hit a breaking point in the past three games. They’ve allowed 10 goals, scored only six and are 0-1-2 over that span.
“Is it catching up to us?” goalie Matt Murray said. “I don't know, but we can't let it either way.”
No one can blame the Penguins for burden of trying to offset the losses of Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Jake Guentzel, Tom Sestito, Ron Hainsey and Conor Sheary, who was knocked out of action again on Sunday.
Letang and Malkin are among the most talented players in the league, and many of the other absences were key contributors to the team’s run to the Stanley Cup last spring.
To put those losses in perspective, consider this: Penguins players had missed 81 man games to injury on Jan. 8, just as their bye week had ended. Since then, that number has almost doubled, reaching 161 in the past 37 games.
Minor league players were called up to take on expanded roles. Carter Rowney found himself centering the team’s second line when the puck dropped ahead of their 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
That's also pushed veteran players to their breaking points with guys like Justin Schultz, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz forced to play more minutes than they would under regular circumstances.
Sidney Crosby, who is likely to take the ice without regular linemates Guentzel and Sheary against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, could be watching a scoring title slip away as part of the fallout.
For as frustrating as that must be, the Penguins’ captain wouldn’t complain.
“It’s something that we’ve been faced with for a while,” he said. “That’s the way it’s going so we’ve got to find ways to win games. We can’t control who’s in and out, but we’ve got to be able to make sure that our effort is there and we didn’t give ourselves much of a chance tonight.”
Crosby is pointing to his team’s effort Sunday.
His team opened up a 1-0 lead before allowing Philadelphia to reel off the next four goals. While the effort could have been better, there is no denying that the lineup and those who were absent had as much to do with the outcome as anything anyone in the lineup did or didn’t do.
While the team has started to show some wear and tear, it was refreshing to hear one newcomer talk about the mental toughness of the team.
Cameron Gaunce, who made his way back into the lineup a couple games ago, said that for all the visible fatigue caused by a busy March and the injuries, he’s impressed by the mental toughness he's seeing in the locker room.
“Oh I think for sure,” Gaunce said. “This team’s played almost every other day for a long time and you got some guys like a Justin Schultz playing almost 30 minutes a night, hard minutes. That’s tough on the body and it’s tough mentally. It’s draining but I think these guys, there’s a reason why they won it last year, because these guys are strong mentally every night.”
There has been a lot of talk about how these injuries might be a blessing in disguise. They've allowed some players to rest, while others gained valuable experience. That is just a little too clichéd to be accurate, but it is worth noting that a little adversity -- or in this case a lot -- goes a long way toward revealing the character necessary to make a sustained playoff run.
That said, having to play without their second (Malkin), fourth (Sheary), seventh (Letang) and 11th (Guentzel) leading scorers has made it tough to compete.
In light of losing three straight games -- two in a shootout -- they are still tied with Columbus for second in the Metropolitan Division and only three points behind the Washington Capitals for the top spot in the division and the league.
There is no word on how long Sheary will be out of the lineup with his latest setback, though he’s been listed as day-to-day, but there could be some reinforcements on the way.
Letang, Guentzel, Hainsey, Maatta, and Daley all skated ahead of practice on Sunday. Essentially all but Carl Hagelin could be nearing a return to the lineup, which would be a significant boost.
It's something to look forward too, but in the meantime, coach Mike Sullivan said they need to find ways to win in less than optimal circumstances.
“We're hopeful that we're going to get some guys back here fairly soon, and that's certainly going to make us more competitive,” Sullivan said. “In the meantime, as I've said all along, we believe we've got capable guys that can help us win, and they've done that over the course of the last month. We're going to have to find a way to get back in the win column.”