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Jake Deemer The Hockey Writers

Published on Monday, March 22, 2021

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Penguins Weekly: Injuries Revealing Lack of Center Depth

It was a tough week for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but there is still hope for this team to become a Stanley Cup contender.

As the Pens went 2-2-1 this week in what could have been a great opportunity to collect some points, they are still in third place in the MassMutual East Division and have a four-point cushion on the fourth-place Boston Bruins. Here’s the catch, though, the Bruins have four games in hand on the Penguins, and it could be more with Boston in COVID-19 protocol until at least Wednesday.

With that situation looming, the Penguins need to take advantage of their upcoming schedule, and most importantly, get healthy.

Injury Bug Hitting Hard

We all thought that after the injury bug bit the Penguins in the early parts of the season, things would lighten up. Boy, were we wrong.

As if the injuries that affected virtually the entire defensive corps at the beginning of the season weren’t bad enough, the Penguins have had it rough as of late with names like Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Tanev seeing time on the shelf.

As it stands on Monday, five Penguins are out of the lineup, including Malkin (lower body), Tanev (undisclosed), Mark Friedman (upper body), Jason Zucker (lower body), and Teddy Blueger (upper body).

The injuries are most certainly affecting the Penguins and they are wearing the team’s depth thin.

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin is perhaps the most important Penguins player to be affected by an injury lately. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The lack of depth at the center position was evident in the past two games as Mark Jankowski was lifted to the third line. Jankowski, who signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh worth $700,000 in the offseason, has one goal in his last 28 games.

Also being lifted onto the third line was forward Sam Lafferty, who before he was slotted on the third line on Saturday had one point in 19 games this season. Solid, cup contending teams get production at some level from their third line, and having ‘grinder’ players like Lafferty and Jankowski on that line does the team no good.

Malkin, on the other hand, has been one of the best players offensively for the Penguins. Prior to the game in which he was injured on March 16, Malkin was riding an eight-game points streak with goals in four of his last six games.

A Few Players Stepping Up

In the absence of key players like Malkin, some players have been stepping up, such as Kasperi Kapanen, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel.

Kapanen, who is really starting to find his game in Pittsburgh at age 24, has been offensively active almost every game. In the month of March alone, Kapanen has 11 of his 14 points on the season and is hitting his stride as the Penguins are heating up.

Rust, on the other hand, has been extraordinary, as has the entire top line of him, Guentzel and Sidney Crosby. The three players occupy three of the top four spots in scoring for the team. If it were not for the Evan Rodrigues in the early parts of the season, this line perhaps would not have come together. Rodrigues spent time on the top line with Guentzel and Crosby, while Rust was with a sluggish Malkin, and things were not working out for either line.

Bryan Rust Pittsburgh Penguins
Bryan Rust has collected 11 goals and 23 points on the season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since that injury, though, both Rust and Malkin’s play have improved dramatically.

Who knows where the franchise would be without players like Rust and Guentzel. Since 2017, Rust and Guentzel have been two of the most consistent offensive players aside from Malkin and Crosby.

Guentzel has already reached the 30-point plateau for the season and is on pace to eclipse 52 points this year. The 26-year-old has points in all but two games in March and has made his mark on the stat sheet in 14 of his last 17 games.

Housekeeping

Tanev was scratched after warmups on Saturday, but remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury.

Also, Zucker, who has been out of the lineup since Feb. 23, skated with the team’s taxi squad on Sunday. A big step in his recovery.

The Penguins are back in action on Wednesday as they will host the Buffalo Sabres for back-to-back games.


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