The Penguins have won four straight and are only two points back of overtaking both the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, but if Pittsburgh wants to move past the Devils and Islanders this weekend, they’ll have to do so without the services of two centers.
It was announced Wednesday that both Evgeni Malkin and Eric Fehr would miss Pittsburgh’s back-to-back games against Tampa Bay and Florida. Malkin, who suffered a lower-body injury, will have to be reevaluated following the weekend, but the outlook for Fehr isn’t nearly as good — it’s expected he’ll be out at least a month.
“(Malkin) is not going to be on the weekend with us,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told Michelle Crechiolo. “He’s got a lower-body injury. He’s going to rehab it over the weekend. We’re going to evaluate him when we get back and go from there.”
Losing Malkin for a few games isn’t a death knell for the Penguins, but it’ll be worrisome if his injury keeps him out of the lineup for longer than the weekend. Malkin has a long history of lower-body injuries. Since the 2010-11 season, Malkin has missed 84 games due to lower-body and knee ailments, including 36 games due to right knee surgery in April 2011.
Without Malkin, the Penguins second line also takes a knock as Sullivan will need to find someone to slot in between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. In practice, that duty fell to Matt Cullen, but it’ll be near impossible for the 39-year-old to replace Malkin’s production. Over the past five games, Malkin has four goals and six points skating between Hagelin and Kessel.
As for Fehr, Sullivan called the pivots injury “significant," but it’s not bad enough that Fehr will be out for the remainder of the regular season.
“It’s going to be longer-term,” Sullivan told Crechiolo. “It’s not season-ending. It’s nothing that severe. But it’s significant enough that it’s going to be longer-term.”
While Fehr’s absence may not be as glaring on the score sheet, it’s going to seriously impact the Penguins’ depth. At this point, Pittsburgh is already without Beau Bennett and Nick Bonino — who Fehr was replacing as the third-line center — and Fehr’s injury only means more stress will be put on the bottom-six of the Penguins to step up and chew big defensive minutes.
According to Crechiolo, Sullivan said Kevin Porter, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl will be among those relied upon to help fill Fehr’s spot during his absence. Bonino isn’t expected back in the lineup for at least another week, possibly two, which means the trio of Porter, Rust and Kuhnhackl will also be counted upon to play an important role on the penalty kill.