Penguins still expecting to win with defence in shambles

Senators head coach Guy Boucher explains why Pierre Dorion is totally deserved of his nod for GM of the year.

OTTAWA – Sidney Crosby had a strategic conversation this morning on a University of Ottawa ice pad with the latest candidate to quarterback the best power play left standing in these unpredictable, injury-riddled playoffs: Mark Streit, who has been warming the Penguins’ bench for 38 days.

Streit is the savvy 39-year-old puck mover GM Jim Rutherford scooped at the trade deadline from bitter intrastate rival Philadelphia, with a primary assist from Steve Yzerman.

He has more than 800 games of experience when you count his 31 post-season appearances, and was brought in to add depth. But who knew the defending champs would have to reach this deep to patch up a blue line that is in shambles?

“He hasn’t actually played, so I was giving him an idea what we’re looking for and kinda seeing what he sees out there too,” Crosby said of his conversation with Streit, who point-manned the first power-play unit at practice.

The Penguins enter Game 3 without Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, and, most importantly, offensive-minded defenceman Justin Schultz (all three skated and are day-to-day with upper-body injuries).

Streit is a game-time decision, as is speedy defenceman Trevor Daley, who will take warm-up at Canadian Tire Centre. Daley will play over Streit, but there’s a chance coach Mike Sullivan opts for seven D.

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The battered spectre hanging over all the Penguins’ daily injury reports, of course, is Kris Letang, whom winger Carter Rowney compared to Erik Karlsson.

Letang is a one-man breakout, a power-play runner, a game-breaker, and a horse — the type of minutes-munching, pace-setting No. 1 defenceman you’ll see on the roster of every Stanley Cup champion dating back to… well, I got researching so far back, I stopped checking.

“When you’re missing a guy like that, it’s going to be different. He’s one of the best players in the world, going back for pucks and breaking out your forwards,” said Conor Sheary.

“We just want to make it easier on our D coming out of our end zone. If we can make the breakouts easy for them, get back and reloading, and support them on the breakout, that’ll help them. We have a lot of good defencemen in the organization that can step up and play big roles.”

Of the four teams still on the dance floor, Pittsburgh’s defend-by-committee approach is a striking anomaly. The Penguins’ most-used blueliner, household name Brian Brian Dumoulin, has averaged 21:19 a night, while its least-used defenceman, Chad Ruhwedel, skates 16:22 — a difference of just 4:57.

Now, consider this. Roman Josi (25:59) skates 14:48 more than Nashville’s sixth D-man. Cam Fowler (26:35) logs 14:44 more than Anaheim’s lowest defenceman. And superhuman Erik Karlsson (28:55) is averaging 18:31 more than Ottawa’s least-deployed blueliner.

Depending whom you ask, the equality of ice time shared by Pittsburgh’s defence is remarkable or frightening—or both.

“We have six, seven guys on D who can play those 20 minutes a game. It doesn’t matter,” says Olli Maatta. “The minutes [Letang] plays, it’s a huge loss for us, but we’ve done a great job stepping up. Not one guy. It’s all six guys. We have a good D group and don’t worry about matchups too much.”

With Schultz and his eight points out of the lineup, the Penguins dress a defence Wednesday that has scored one goal among them this post-season. That would belong to renowned sniper Ron Hainsey.

“We have to put more pressure on their D. Their D are banged up. Their top couple D are out,” Senators forward Clarke MacArthur said. “That’s the place we’ve got to put the focus to. We’ve got to get in there on the forecheck and make these guys make plays.”

If Pittsburgh’s much-celebrated depth proves not so bottomless after all, we can point at a depleted and disordered blue line and say we saw it coming.

“What I love about this group of players is no one’s looking for excuses. Everybody’s looking for answers. The guys that get opportunities to go back into the lineup, they go in with the mindset that they want to make a difference, and that’s just a credit to the character of the players that we have,” said Sullivan, whose task gets more complicated with every Dion Phaneuf shoulder.

“It certainly presents challenges for the coaching staff as far as trying to create some semblance of order and familiarity with the lineup and the roster, whether it be power-play combinations or line combinations or defence pairs.”

And yet: What if they pull this off, this Frankenstein’s monster of a title defence?

Trudging toward the NHL’s first repeat championship in 19 years is a patchwork of bodies young and old, slow and fast, bruised and possibly concussed. What if they actually put the lie to the accepted theory that you can’t win in this league—not four series anyway—without an undisputed No. 1 defenceman?

“Our expectations are we’re going to find ways to win games,” Sullivan said.

“We believe in the people we have.”

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