Seeing a top-line forward and your most indispensable defenseman walking slowly down the tunnel and out of sight during a game would be startling if the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t grown so used to it.
At least Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz felt well enough on Tuesday to join the rest of the team as the defending Stanley Cup champions hopped a plane and headed to Ottawa for Games 3 and 4 of their Eastern Conference final tied at 1-1.
Whether Rust, Schultz and Patric Hornqvist – scratched after warmups before Pittsburgh’s 1-0 Game 2 victory Monday nigh – get a chance to play is unclear. All three are day-to-day with upper-body injuries, though their absence hardly slowed their remarkably resilient team. The Penguins controlled play despite playing the last 50 minutes with just five defensemen and 11 forwards.
Just another day at work for a team that is within three victories of a return trip to the Cup finals despite an injured list that at times seems to grow by the shift.
Rust left just five minutes into Game 2 when he was on the wrong end of a crushing but legal check by Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf. Schultz followed him out five minutes later after sliding awkwardly into the end boards. Hornqvist dressed but ended up staying in the locker room, the wear and tear of being a bulldozer in front of the opposing net and a wall in front of his own catching up with him.
And yet the Penguins roll on.
“We’ve been having to deal with these kind of injuries all year long,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “It really shows the character of this squad.”
Do-everything defenseman Kris Letang is out for the season after having surgery on his neck and Trevor Daley remains out with a lower-body injury of his own. Schultz had taken over the responsibility of being the primary puck mover, quarterbacking the power play while delivering on the two-way promise he flirted with but never showcased with any consistency during three-plus years in Edmonton.
The silence inside the arena during his abrupt exit on Monday night was palpable, yet the five blue liners remaining – Ruhwedel, 37-year-old playoff rookie Ron Hainsey, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Olli Maatta – made it work anyway. The Senators managed just 23 shots on net and 35 in all, their lowest total of the season. At one point, Ottawa went nearly 19 minutes without sending a puck Marc-Andre Fleury’s way.
Credit a puck-hogging performance by the forwards, who pinned Ottawa in its own end for much of the night. Credit Fleury for being sharp the few times he was legitimately tested on the way to his 10th career postseason shutout. Credit Phil Kessel’s wrist shot with 6:55 left that provided the difference. And credit a group that plays with a mental toughness that’s become one of the defining traits of coach Mike Sullivan’s 17-month tenure.
“We believe we have a good team and we have a deep team, and we have what it takes to win regardless of which guys are in our lineup,” Sullivan said, “I think this team has a chemistry. That is a competitive advantage for us. We believe that.”
The Penguins went shopping at the trade deadline with their defense in tatters, acquiring Hainsey from Carolina and veteran Mark Streit from Philadelphia to patch together a lineup to get the club through late February and early March. Streit hasn’t logged a single minute during the playoffs but will likely be the one to step in if Schultz can’t go Wednesday.
“Mark’s a guy that has invaluable experience,” Sullivan said. “He’s a really savvy player. I think he could help us on our power play. He could help us get out of our end zone. He’s a real good puck mover. I think he’s got great puck skills. So that was one of the main reasons why we acquired him when we did.”
The picture is a little murkier if Rust sits out Game 3, though Pittsburgh won’t lack for options. The Penguins have been able to roll for lines through the first two games against the Senators, with the fourth line of Matt Cullen, Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney arguably being the most effective combination from period to period.
Wilson was credited with 10 hits during just 12:15 of ice time, including four during one memorable shift.
“I still believe when we’re playing physical like that and we’re playing with a little snarl, that brings out our best hockey,” Cullen said.
Something the Penguins will need to do in front of a raucous crowd as the Senators try to continue their deepest playoff push in a decade.
“We know we belong here in this position. We worked hard to get here,” Ottawa’s Marc Methot said. “ The series is 1-1, and we’re able to get home now and play a few home games. So we’re looking forward to it.”