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Pens pushed to the brink by COVID

The Pittsburgh hockey club can’t seem to catch a break

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins are back in a familiar spot — one pushed to the brink due to circumstances outside of their control. The latest shot came today with the announcement that Sidney Crosby and Brian Dumoulin have confirmed positive tests for COVID. They join Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel, who just went into COVID protocol days ago. Only today did Kris Letang return from it, coming a few days after Jeff Carter was cleared.

It’s especially tough for Crosby, who only played one game coming back from off-season wrist surgery and now has been sidelined, with symptoms, by the virus.

“I’m sure he’s discouraged,” coach Mike Sullivan said of Crosby. “He’s worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we were all so excited about getting him back in the lineup and just getting him back in the fold. This just puts another roadblock in front of it. But we’ll control what we can here. We’ve got capable people. And we’re hopeful that Sid will return soon.”

On the latter part, while it feels ghoulish to talk to in detailed about when Crosby and Dumoulin might return while they still feel some symptoms and are in the early stages of their diagnoses, here’s the Pens’ upcoming schedule.

Counting today as Day 1 for the NHL’s protocol of symptomatic players requiring at least 10 days in isolation from start of symptoms, day 10 would be next Friday. That weekend sees a road back-to-back and two border crossings to boot, throwing into question right now when the next time Crosby or Dumoulin may be physically and procedurally able to go again.

The good news seems to be for the players on the team who have had these break-through infections, symptoms have been mild at most and have tended to fade after a few days.

“They have shown mild symptoms, but are at this point improving, which is encouraging from our standpoint,” Sullivan said. “Chad was able to ride the bike yesterday, so he’s starting to exercise again. Marcus is in the same circumstance; his symptoms are improving. So we’re just trying to monitor these guys through the process, and try and help them in any way that we can.”

Letang also spoke of his experience over about the last two weeks. From the Pens:

“I had congestion, headaches, pressure in the forehead, coughing, loss of taste and smell, body aches and pain in the lower back,” Letang said. “After that, it was getting better and better every day.”

Letang couldn’t do a whole lot from an exercise standpoint, initially because he was so tired and fatigued during those first 4-5 days. From there, he had to complete all of the necessary medical tests and screenings before getting cleared.

He first stepped onto the ice at the end of practice on Monday. Letang then skated on his own for an hour-and-a-half on Tuesday at what he called a pretty high intensity, before going through a full practice today.

“I felt like yesterday I cleared up all the bad stuff inside me, and today I felt really good,” Letang said. “So I wouldn’t say I’m where I want to be, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to get there pretty quick.”

Letang is unconfirmed to play tomorrow against the Flyers, but participated fully in practice on the top pair, so it sounds promising that is the path they think they will be headed, with the team otherwise currently carrying just five healthy defensemen at the moment other than Letang.

Naturally there has been fan anger, frustration, confusion about these times. Some “what aboutism” for other teams and sports, as if the Penguins are the only ones to have COVID troubles as a group. That isn’t the case, and has been the case with this virus last season and this, when an NHL team has issues it tends to be more than an isolated case and instead clusters of multiple people at a time. Last year the list of NHL games rescheduled with teams having significant issues is as long as your arm.

It’s not gone away this season either, and isn’t just affecting the Pens — seven Sharks players and their head coach went into protocol in recent days. On Monday the COVID protocol came for Max Domi in Columbus and Ville Husso in St. Louis, as well as Gabe Vilardi and Viktor Arvidsson in Los Angeles.

Other leagues have seen clusters as well, notably today with Aaron Rodgers being ruled out for at least a game in Green Bay. The Packers have had difficulties with Devante Adams and Allen Lazard missing last week’s game — with Lazard not even testing positive but being held out as a close contact. Rodgers will take up 99.9% of the attention, but teammates Isaac Yiadom and Kurt Benkert also both went on the COVID list today, showing a definite cluster currently in the Packers’ room at the moment.

That other baseball or football or hockey teams have escaped the virus currently is not a bad development, but rather a good one. It will be a good thing when no one, anywhere, is contracting or spreading COVID, naturally.

Focusing back to Pittsburgh, here’s how the Pens looked at practice with what they currently have to go forward with:

That Kasperi Kapanen demotion to the fourth line from earlier this week didn’t take, huh? . Kapanen only has 0.57 5v5 Points/60 this season, lowest of any forward on the team (min. 25 minutes), but Sullivan doesn’t have the luxury of tough love right now. The Pens need to have all capable hands on deck, and frankly, just need Kapanen to score something at this point. And, let’s be honest, that’s not very likely to happen playing with Brian Boyle on fourth line deployment. But a message was sent to Kapanen, let’s see how it is received.

Carter and Heinen worked well together at the very beginning of the season, so that makes at least something to go back for. Carter back in general makes this lineup a lot better than last week’s pre-Crosby lines, if you’re feeling like really straining for a silver lining in these stormy clouds.

Another silver lining is that Bryan Rust practiced with the team today in a non-contact capability. He probably isn’t too far off. And the door remains open for players like Dominik Simon and Drew O’Connor to get into more games than they otherwise would.

On defense, it’s a heck of a chance for P.O Joseph and Juuso Riikola to play NHL games. The Pens are without their two best pure defensive-defensemen in Dumoulin and Pettersson, which hurts, but Joseph showed last season in a similar situation that he could provide top-four minutes in a brief window. Now, more experienced, it’s an opportunity to show how much he has been able to grow and evolve his game (or..be exposed again if it hasn’t developed all that much, as the end of Joseph’s stint in the NHL went.)

And I don’t know what is going to happen with a Mike Matheson - Letang pair, but I can promise you something is going to happen with them on the ice. Perhaps two or three good scoring chances per shift. But how many for each team? That will be the question to have answered. Letang and Matheson shared the ice last year for 57 minutes, but not much consecutively, just little overlaps here and there, and certainly not enough to know how a temporary full-time partnership would look like.

But with Dumoulin and Pettersson likely both out at least about 10 days or four or five+ games, it will be a look the Pens will need to see in the short-term future.