Over the last few seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had major issues staying healthy up front. While that problem continues to plague them this season, the injury bug has spread to the blue line and taken a major toll on the defensive unit that Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma had in mind prior to the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
At first glance, it appears that Pittsburgh's ability to continue to win hockey games despite missing key components on the back end is a small hockey miracle, but in reality, it's a testament to the depth that Shero has spent years building and developing.
Because of that depth, Pittsburgh has not only managed to remain afloat in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division, but they're on pace to win the division crown and to challenge for home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Which is as ridiculous as your average The Walking Dead mid-season finale when you consider the volume of games that Pittsburgh's top four have missed.
|Top-Four Defenders (Games Played/Games Possible)|
|Kris Letang||Paul Martin||Brooks Orpik||Rob Scuderi||Total|
All told, the Penguins are fourth in the NHL in man games lost to injury according to ManGamesLost.com. They've lost 120 games throughout their lineup with various aliments, with the top-four defenders eating up 31 total games in missed time.
Translation: Pittsburgh has been playing without at least one top-four guy in every contest so far this season.
On most nights the blue line has been much more banged up than that though. Brooks Orpik staying healthy and Paul Martin getting injured only recently skew the average a bit, but the point is still clear.
Pittsburgh has had to count on a glut of young defensemen to get through the first third (or so) of the season. And to this point, it's worked.
Twenty-six-year-old Matt Niskanen wasn't supposed to be a major cog on the blue line for the Penguins this year, but he's had to be. After being an afterthought in the James Neal hijacking, he's now playing close to 19 minutes a night on average, according to ESPN.com.
It was the former Dallas Star who elevated his game when Letang was on the shelf until October 25, scoring eight of his 11 total points in that span of time.
Another young player who has stepped up is Olli Maatta. Rob Scuderi broke his ankle on October 26, and up until that point, Maatta had been playing between 14 and 16 minutes a night. A cursory glance at his game log shows that he saw a big spike in minutes once Scuderi was sidelined, and it hasn't been uncommon for Maatta to log anywhere between 18 or 19 minutes of time a night.
That's a lot of ice time for a teenager who Pittsburgh considered sending back to the junior level until October 24, which is when the team decided to keep him. Then, two days later he's needed to fill in for a minute-muncher like Scuderi?
The icing on the injury-response-team cake came after Martin's fractured tibia on November 25. He's expected to miss four to six weeks while recovering and rehabbing. Most teams would be scrambling to pull the trigger on a knee-jerk trade or to claim a warm body off the waiver wire at that point. Too much is too much, right?
Not for these Penguins. Not by a long shot.
They simply recalled blue-chip defensive prospect Simon Despres from the AHL to fill in for Martin. Despres was expected to make the NHL roster this season after playing in 33 contests for the Penguins during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.
Instead, Pittsburgh decided to send him to the AHL to play some big minutes. You know, just in case they needed him ready to jump in and do the same thing at the NHL level.
All in all, the damage that the Penguins have managed to do despite skating so short-handed is remarkable.
They went 7-2 without Letang in the lineup. They've yet to lose since Martin's injury. Despite Scuderi being called "The Piece" by Bylsma, the Pens are 16-5-1 without him in the lineup.
Pittsburgh is the eighth-best team in the NHL, and they've managed to do it while watching key players exit the lineup at an alarming rate. We're just talking about the defense here, after all. When you consider that players like James Neal, Beau Bennett, Chuck Kobasew and Tanner Glass have all missed time at forward, the 18-9-1 record seems even more incomprehensible.
The NHL season is a long one, and at some juncture the hockey gods will have to relent in their assault on Pittsburgh's blue line and move on to trying to slow another team down. They've thrown all the hexes and curses imaginable at the Penguins so far this year, and nothing has prevented them from piling up the wins yet.