In his media availability Monday, after several defensemen were seen skating in red non-contact practice jerseys, head coach Mike Sullivan was asked if there were any updates on their statuses. In response, he offered several brief, positive remarks about the Penguins’ blueliners and each of their roads to recovery.
“Tanger and Olli skated with our skills coach before practice, and Dumo participated in a non-contact fashion,” said Sullivan. “The next step obviously for (Dumoulin) is full-contact, and his status is still the same — it’s day-to-day. We’re certainly encouraged with his progress.”
During practice, Dumoulin was seen skating and rotating in with Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz on the top pairing, and even though he’s frustrated having to watch his team attempt to solidify a playoff spot from the sidelines, he feels confident that he’s finally back on that ice and that he won’t be out of the lineup for much longer.
“It’s tough watching,” said Dumoulin. “They were battling hard and they had some great games, but it’s obviously more fun playing than watching them. It’s great to be back. I’ve had a concussion before, it’s been a similar process. You just see how you feel each day, and I’ve been feeling a lot better. After the (Flyers) game, and the following couple days, I didn’t feel great at all. It’s good to feel good again and to be back out skating with the team.”
Naturally, Dumoulin was also asked (read: pressed) about what he thought of the hit by Wayne Simmonds that caused his concussion, and his response was cool and professional.
“(Simmonds) didn’t hit me in the head, (the injury) was mostly from my head hitting the glass. With outdoor games, it’s pretty chilly, and the glass is pretty cold and definitely didn’t help. It was kind of a blind-side hit, I was in a tough spot and couldn’t really do anything. It’s obviously not a great hit to be a part of. I was just trying to keep the puck in, but it is what it is and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
Regarding the players who have stepped up in the absence of the Penguins’ best defensemen, such as Johnson, Marcus Pettersson, Juuso Riikola, newcomer Erik Gudbranson, and WBS call-up Zach Trotman, Sullivan was very complimentary of their performances given the tough situation facing the team in the defensive end.
“I think they’re capable (of continuing to fill in the top-four/top-six roles),” said Sullivan. “They’ve played really well to this point. As long as we play a solid team game and they stay within themselves and they don’t try to do too much and keep the game simple and defend hard and make good decisions, then I believe they’re capable. They’ve certainly shown that in the last week or so. These guys have played well. They deserve a lot of credit.”
Sullivan also believes the Penguins, as a whole, have played better team defense in the past few games. Given the circumstances, the team basically has no choice but to tighten up, make good (albeit safe) decisions, and be less careless with the puck as to not leave their goaltender on an island and avoid any mistakes, especially ones that would normally be cleaned up by the skilled guys currently sitting in the press box that ultimately lead to goals against.
“When you look at the last handful of games, our team as made a much better commitment to playing away from the puck and being harder to play against,” said Sullivan. “We’re making better decisions with the puck, so we’re not giving away the easy scoring chance or transition opportunity. Overall, our team game has been much stronger. That’s helped us get the results that we have. In the last handful of games, we could have even been better in the win-loss column.”
With the postseason stakes so high, the Penguins must continue their focus on smart defensive hockey. So far, so good.