Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Penguins lose players but keep winning games

, USA TODAY Sports
May 16, 2017

Dion Phaneuf #2 of the Ottawa Senators hits Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 15, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked Tuesday rather bluntly how he hopes to win the Eastern Conference finals with three of his top defensemen potentially out with injuries.

Sullivan didn’t hesitate.

“Because we believe we have a good team and we have a deep team,” he said. “We have what it takes to win regardless of which guys are in our lineup.”

In this series, which is tied 1-1 headed to Ottawa for Game 3 on Wednesday, the Senators have been cast as the resilient group, a team that has overcome hardship and heartache to win nine games this postseason, including six in overtime.

But it may be the Penguins who deserve the title of most resilient, at least in terms of overcoming injuries.

First, they lost No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang. He’s as important to the Penguins as Erik Karlsson is to the Senators.

Then, projected starting goalie Matt Murray went down minutes before the first game of the playoffs and Marc-Andre Fleury had to takeover.

Trevor Daley, another puck-moving defenseman, has now missed four games with an undisclosed injury. Puck-moving defenseman No. 3 Justin Schultz had to leave Monday’s game after injuring his arm or shoulder.

Bryan Rust, one of Sidney Crosby’s wingers, also left Monday’s game after being crushed by a check from Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf. Patric Hornqvist, the player who gives Pittsburgh a net-front presence, is also out with an injury.

Speedy Carl Hagelin, crucial to the Penguins’ Stanley Cup win last year, has only played five playoff games this year because he’s been injured. He did play in Monday's 1-0 victory.

Even Crosby had to miss a game last series against Washington when he suffered a concussion. Conor Sheary also missed a game.

When you factor that in, you wonder how the Penguins managed to defeat the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the NHL just to reach the Conference finals.

But Sullivan doesn’t wonder at all.

“I think this team has a chemistry that is a competitive advantage,” Sullivan said. “We believe that. These guys get along extremely well. They enjoy playing for one another. And I think they play extremely hard for one another.”

The Penguins’ resolve may serve them better than their speed and skill.

It was almost as if general manager Jim Rutherford could see the rash of injuries when acquired veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit before the trade deadline.

Hainsey has been steady. Streit, known for his offensive spark, hasn’t played a game, but he could get the call if Schultz isn’t ready to play Wednesday.

“(Streit) has invaluable experience,” Sullivan said. “He’s a savvy player. He could help us on our power play. He could get us out of our end zone. He’s a really good puck mover. He has good puck skills. That was one of the reasons we got him. We know he can continue to help us win games. He helped us win games down the stretch.”

The belief that the next man up will plug the gap has become a Penguins’ tradition. That’s their identity now, even more than being a speed and skill team.

Losing three top defenseman? No problem.

“(This is) one more challenge this team is going to have to face and find ways to overcome,” Sullivan said. “Regardless of what aspect of our game we are discussing, it’s a collective effort."

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