PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) — In all but nine of the last 92 regular season hockey games, Zbynek Michalek has laced up his skates and manned the blue line for the Penguins.
That all changed against New Jersey Saturday night with one shot, as Michalek got in the way of a puck that struck his hand and broke his finger. He’s forced to sit out 4-6 weeks, meaning the defensive corps will be without a familiar presence for an extended period of time.
Although, missing players to injuries isn’t something this team is terribly new to.
“Last year, we were missing a couple of guys and we still found a way to win some games down the stretch,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “It’s tough, but you’ve got to move on and try to find a way to win.”
Martin has played almost exclusively with Michalek as his defensive partner since arriving in Pittsburgh at the beginning of last season. He’ll have to adjust to a new pairing in the coming weeks, and despite all the games played together, Martin seems confident things will transition smoothly.
“You develop a certain level of comfort when you spend that much time paired with a certain guy,” said Martin, who was paired with Kris Letang in Monday’s practice. “You start to realize where they are going to be and what you are going to do, but the way that we play is that it’s okay to be playing with other guys.
“For me personally, it doesn’t matter who I play with. There’s a good group of guys back here and they’ll play.”
Where Michalek is likely to be missed the most is on the penalty kill — a Penguins unit that ranks No. 1 in the NHL, killing off 97 percent of its penalties so far (one goal allowed). Michalek is a proven shot blocker and, though he hasn’t gotten off to the best start this season — last on the team with a minus-5 rating — he has played a big part in penalty kill success.
Michalek is fifth in the NHL in shorthanded time on ice with 35:44 logged so far this season. He averages 3:34 of shorthanded ice time a game for the Pens, which are the 12th most penalized team in the league.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma says that production doesn’t get replaced easily.
“The answer is probably no,” Bylsma said when asked if anyone can replace Michalek on the penalty kill. “Ben Lovejoy is a guy who was and is very good on the penalty kill. He was that guy down in Wilkes-Barre for a number of years. We have players who are very comfortable playing in the penalty kill position, showing they are very good at it.
“‘Z’ is exceptional at it and excels at it, but Brooks is back in there and we are going to count on some other guys to step up and do that. Guys like Kris Letang, who has grown into being a penalty killer over the last couple of years, is going to be relied on a little more heavily than when ‘Z’ was there.”
It appears, at least to start, the Penguins will carry just six defensemen, meaning each of them will have to shoulder a bigger workload over the next month or so.
“He plays a lot of minutes, so obviously everyone is going to have absorb a few more,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “He’s been an important part of our blue line on our team for a while. We will certainly miss him.”