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Salary cap, illnesses could force Penguins to play shorthanded

A lot of factors are conspiring against the Penguins right now, which might prevent them from having a full lineup, or at least a normal one..

NHL: APR 12 Penguins at Islanders Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The tail-end of the 2014-15 season might have been one of the low points of the Sidney Crosby era. The team clinched the final wild card spot on the season’s last day, barely squeaking into the playoffs and mired deep in the Mike Johnston era (error?). Down the stretch of the regular season, the Penguins had to play two games with 12 forwards and five defensemen for only 17 skaters, one defender shy of the typical lineup due to injuries and the salary cap.

All that to set the stage to fast forward to today, where the more things change...

This morning the Pens were on the ice for a full morning skate. Except Bryan Rust and Evan Rodrigues were absent. Both attempted to play but couldn’t make it through last game on Tuesday due to illness.

Pittsburgh has not utilized any callups, due to that old pesky salary cap. They basically have no space after the move made to activate Brock McGinn from long term injured reserve, which also required the team to send Anthony Angello and Radim Zohorna back to Wilkes-Barre to stay cap complaint.

At that time, the Penguins had 13 healthy forwards and seven defensemen to carry them through the end of the season, with the best case scenario being that no further players would be needed and the numbers they had on hand could get them through the last nine games of the season. At that point, the NHL relaxes salary cap limits and more depth could be added to the NHL roster as they saw fit for the playoffs.

But 13 forwards quickly became 12 after Evgeni Malkin got suspended for his actions in the very game McGinn returned. Add in the illness that has been slowly sweeping through the locker-room got a hold of Rust and Rodrigues last game and the Pens had a real problem: they ran out of enough available forwards in a hurry.

And while the official charts will show the Pens used a full lineup for Tuesday against the Islanders, they really didn’t. Rust was so sick he could only play two shifts at the start of the game. In a world where Pittsburgh had cap space, they surely would have brought up a player from the minors and not play a clearly under-the-weather Rust (as they did last week, with McGinn still on LTIR the team had enough room to bring up Filip Hallander to the NHL to round out their lineup when Sidney Crosby took ill. This week, without space, they don’t and haven’t brought any players from the AHL back).

The good-ish news is that the Pens probably will be OK for now, at least compared to Tuesday. The door is still open for either or both of Rust and Rodrigues to play tonight, and while neither will likely have 100% energy, given how recoveries for players like Crosby and John Marino have gone before them with this sickness, they should be getting back on the upswing fairly soon.

Still, after the morning skate, coach Mike Sullivan did acknowledge the ability to produce the typical 12 forwards + six defender lineup hinged on the health status of Rust and Rodrigues. The Pens need both of them to play to get to 12 forwards right now, with Malkin making himself unavailable.

The slight good news is that the chance the Pens will have to play with 17 players again looks low, unlike they had to down the stretch in 2015. (At least for today). Pittsburgh also has seven healthy defensemen around, so if just one of the sick forward plays, the team can at least get to the usual number of 18 skaters by going with an 11F-7D format.

It’s not quite as dire as a similar circumstance forcing Vegas to play a game with only 15 (15!!!!) skaters last season, but still never a good look — particularly with the team in a 1-4-1 slump in the month. It would be difficult enough to replace players like Malkin and Rust with minor league call-ups, but to not be able and replace them at all is just another hurdle and obstacle that the players will have to deal with.

No matter how it shakes out, between illness, suspension and the salary cap, the Penguins are back in a very tight spot at the end of the season once again. If a player got hurt, they might consider putting him on LTIR to open up space for replacements, but that is off the table when dealing with suspensions (Malkin still counts against the salary cap) and short-term illnesses.

The good news for the Pens is the worst shouldn’t be around for too much longer. Malkin is out tonight and two more games and then can return. Rust and Rodrigues will be feeling better soon. And perhaps best of all, the team has four days in a row with no games from Sunday - Thursday to rest up and take stock of what they have left.

The Penguins will play the Islanders tonight, with an unknown and possibly unusual arrangement of players. A Pittsburgh win punches their ticket to an NHL current high 16th time.