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Penguins about to get some injury reinforcements up front, but defensive question marks persist

The news from Dallas looks promising as far as the forwards go, but not so much with the new defensive pairings

Buffalo Sabres v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

There was very good news Friday from Texas, where the Penguins took to the ice for the first time in a a while for a practice ahead of Saturday’s game against the Dallas Stars. Nothing is official or will be confirmed likely up until the roster submission, but it sure looks like injured forwards Nick Bjugstad and Bryan Rust will be back in the lineup tomorrow night.

Here’s how the team lined up for practice:

Bjugstad and Rust have only played a total of two games this season, both of them Bjugstad’s contributions. Rust hasn’t been eligible to play since being placed on long-term injured reserve at the start of the season.

Injured forward Alex Galchenyuk also was on the ice today in Texas, a good sign to be with the team and out there even if he isn’t quite up to speed with the timeline of the other injured forwards. No sign of Evgeni Malkin, who wasn’t on the start of the road trip either with the team, but Malkin was skating on his on his own earlier in the week.

The now fourth line is new too, it had been Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger with Sam Lafferty in past games, now instead they were joined by Brandon Tanev. Lafferty (for a day at least) jumped Tanev to move up to play with Jared McCann.

The not great sign for Joseph Blandisi is obvious in his omission from the lines, he’s likely to be returned to the AHL when Rust and Bjugstad are both taken off injured reserve, as the Pens will need to trim a body off their 23-man active roster at that point.

Defensively, pairings are still fairly jumbled, as they were for most of last game:

The Penguins now have split all three pairs that they probably want to play, in part due to Brian Dumoulin’s injury and in part because a Jack Johnson - Erik Gudbranson pairing is just begging for even the other team’s fourth line to score on them.

Instead, the Pens will try to cobble together what worked in a limited sense last year with Johnson - Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson with Gudbranson.

There is some misguided sense that Johnson-Schultz did well down the stretch last year, they did not — their Corsi For%’s were in the 47-48% range in the last 20 games of the season (ranking Johnson 7th and Schultz 8th among 8 Penguin defensemen), this despite both leading the team (by far) in offensive zone starts. Their xGF’s were also in the 48% range (again ranking 7th and 8th among 8 defenders). The only saving grace, quite literally, was the goaltending of Matt Murray who posted a .945+ save% for both defenders down the stretch. Johnson though, as he is wont to do, still led the team in Goals Against/60 minutes played a 5v5 last season in the last 20 games.

However, Petterson-Gudbranson were very much the opposite, with encouraging underlying numbers. Their Corsi For%’s were in the 54-55% range in the last 20 games of 2018-19, the two best numbers among healthy defensemen. Gudbranson’s xGF was north of 59%, Pettersson an astonishing 61%, those two were really pushing the play in a positive manner down the stretch for the Pens. Reuniting that group might help Gudbranson out a lot, and he’s been probably the shakiest player on the team so far this season, so he could use the help.

The cost of reuniting these two familiar pairs from last season means the awkward top pair of two right-handed defensemen in Kris Letang and rookie John Marino will carry on for another game.

That’s likely not to be pretty, and the best hope of all should be that Dumoulin can return to the lineup quickly when the team returns to Pittsburgh early next week so that the Pens can go back to healthy scratching one of Johnson or Gudbranson every game.