PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ron Hainsey arrived in Pittsburgh from Carolina a month ago on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career.
The durable defenseman found an odd but perhaps apt way to fit in with his new team: He got hurt. Ten games into his tenure with the Penguins, Hainsey went down with an upper-body injury to join an increasingly long line of familiar faces watching in suits from the press box rather than wearing sweaters on the bench.
“Injuries happen,” Hainsey said on Tuesday after skating with his teammates, an important step toward his hopeful return before the postseason begins next month. “Obviously, this team we have a lot of them.”
So many to so many bold-faced names — from Hainsey and fellow defensemen Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Kris Letang to star center Evgeni Malkin and energetic young forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary — that it’s remarkable the defending Stanley Cup champions have been able to hang around in the chase for the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy.
“It’s been crazy around here,” said defenseman Justin Schultz, one of only five players to miss fewer than five games so far. “You see so many guys walking around, it’s wild.”
The wear and tear from trying to keep it together with a threadbare lineup, however, is beginning to show.
Pittsburgh’s hopes of catching first-place Washington took a hit during a third-period implosion on Sunday night at home against Philadelphia as the Flyers poured in four goals over the final 20 minutes of a 6-2 win that left the Penguins three points behind the Capitals with seven games to go.
It was a rare forgettable night in a season that’s showcased both the brilliance of center Sidney Crosby (who’s 42 goals lead the league) and the laser focus preached by coach Mike Sullivan.
There have been few signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Penguins have the fewest home losses in the league and they’ve kept Washington and Columbus within arm’s reach despite the kind of health issues their two rivals have largely avoided.
The key now, even with players on the verge of returning, will be keeping it going. While the odds of Pittsburgh emerging from the three-way race — and avoiding a first-round matchup against the other runner-up — are iffy at best, don’t expect the Penguins to ease up in an effort to rest for the playoffs.
“Our experience has been that you just don’t flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to go into each game with a mindset of trying to win.”
Pittsburgh went 8-2 over its final 10 games of the regular season last spring then rolled to the franchise’s fourth championship. Putting together another surge will be difficult, though there were promising signs during a crowded post-practice dressing room.
Sheary, who left the loss to the Flyers with a lower-body injury, practiced on Tuesday and should play on Wednesday when Chicago visits. Jake Guentzel, who suffered a concussion last week after getting hit illegally by Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, skated but no timetable has been set for his return.
The rookie, who struggled getting off the ice after being leveled by Ristolainen, called the hit “just a hockey play,” though it ended with Ristolainen receiving a three-game suspension.
The line of Guentzel, Sheary and Crosby had almost single-handedly kept Pittsburgh’s offense going with Malkin out. They’re optimistic they’ll get a chance to recreate the mojo before the regular season ends.
“You don’t want to limp into the playoffs, losing a few games,” Sheary said. “I think momentum is a huge thing in this game. If you’re playing well going into the playoffs, I think that carries over big time.”
Getting familiar faces back in the lineup before mid-April is critical.
On that front at least, the Penguins appear to have been spared. It seems everyone has a chance to be in uniform when things get going for real.
“It seems like all the injuries are supposed to be healed up right around playoff time,” Sheary said.
“Hopefully we can get those guys back and use it to our advantage.”