Ever since Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist suffered minor injuries about two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had a huge problem: not enough healthy players in the NHL, nor cap space to call up a replacement.
They thought the problem was solved when they sent Derrick Pouliot (the only defenseman who doesn't have to clear waivers) down to the AHL and called up forward Andrew Ebbett to balance out their healthy forwards/defensemen, but then they had another issue when Christian Ehrhoff's sad, injury-filled season continued.
Ehrhoff aggravated an unnamed injury before the game in Dallas this weekend (though the Pens have promised it wasn't related to his concussion issues, for what it's worth), forcing the Pens to play with 12 forwards and only 5 defensemen, a very unusual and far-from-ideal alignment which forced Kris Letang to play over 31 minutes of a non-overtime game.
Sensing that wasn't a way to go, the Pens reversed their move and sent Ebbett back down to bring Pouliot up to give the Pens 11 forwards and 6 defensemen for the St. Louis game. Ehrhoff was going to play as well to give the Pens a normal 18 skaters, even if they would be one forward short. Ehrhoff left again in the first with an injury, but the team at least had a full complement of defensemen.
Tonight that same 17 skater (11F, 6D) lineup will meet against Carolina for coach Mike Johnston.
"Any time you're playing with 11 forwards, you'll mix your lines up a little bit just because of the situation," Johnston said. "I think on the road, it's a little bit different as well. It gives a look that they may not be ready for as far as who's playing with who and different shifts. And you can juggle. I thought last time, our top forwards managed their minutes well even though they were pushed into higher minutes.
"Top forwards" with no Malkin really puts a burden on Sidney Crosby . Crosby played 25:28 last game, which went to OT, but that's still his season high for TOI this year. Ditto David Perron playing 23:30, Chris Kunitz getting 19:29 and Daniel Winnik not far behind with 19:26.
One player who isn't a "top forward" in the team's eyes clearly is Beau Bennett who only played 7:52 last game, despite the short-handed forward situation. Bennett isn't getting great usage but it's still troubling that he isn't doing hardly anything with the time he gets. Bennett is stuck in a vicious cycle where his ice-time is being cut and his linemates are worsening, which isn't going to help his production...And yet because he hasn't generated many chances or points, he's not going to earn any extra shifts or better assignments from the coaches who haven't seen enough to justify it.
Bennett has also spoken of being uncomfortable adjusting to wearing 2 braces, so at this point he's not in top form to really be getting a prime role right now, unfortunately.
Bennett aside, the rest of the team figures to be really tired after tonight. Playing with less than a full group of players stinks, and it was a gamble the Pens made flying so tight to the salary cap. Luckily it appears Malkin and/or Hornqvist are both getting very close to a return, which would give the team enough players to ice a full group. That day can't come quick enough.