The Pittsburgh Penguins find their lineup on defense in disarray just over a week into the shortened NHL season.
The Penguins look to overcome that hurdle when they vie for their third straight victory on Friday against the visiting New York Rangers.
Already without Mike Matheson because of a long-term upper-body injury, Pittsburgh will be without defensemen Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Riikola heading into Friday’s contest. Pettersson is out week-to-week and Riikola is sidelined long term after sustaining upper-body injuries in the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday.
Pittsburgh’s top three blueliners — Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and John Marino — are locks to face the Rangers, but it is unclear who will man the other three spots.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph has been one of Pittsburgh’s top prospects since he was acquired in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes in June 2019. The 21-year-old could make his NHL debut against the Rangers.
“He’s ahead of his development curve from where we see him,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He certainly deserves his opportunity to play.”
Kevin Czuczman, 30, could also make his Penguins debut after spending most of his career in the minors.
Joseph and Czuczman, who had been practicing with the taxi squad, joined the main roster on Thursday.
“I’m really young, so I’m just trying to feed off guys here who have a lot of experience,” Joseph said. “Just trying to stay ready for whenever the time is going to be. … If I’m in the lineup, I will have a lot of people around me to help.”
Cody Ceci, who played in Pittsburgh’s season opener but since has been scratched, also could vie for a spot in the lineup.
Making things tougher to decipher Thursday was the fact that defenseman Chad Ruhwedel missed Penguins practice after becoming a first-time father.
The Rangers, meanwhile, will be playing their first road game.
“One of the things we were pretty good at the second half of last year, we were a pretty good road team,” New York coach David Quinn said. “Hopefully, we can continue that.”
The Rangers avoided a couple injury scares in their most recent game.
Center Mika Zibanejad, who slammed into the boards Tuesday in a 4-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils, and winger Brendan Lemieux participated in practice on Thursday.
“They’ll be ready to go for Friday,” Quinn said.
New York can shift its concerns to other areas, such as scoring. The Rangers have logged eight goals, and same number they have given up in winning one of their first three games.
Fingers could point in various directions, but it stands out that center Ryan Strome has yet to record a point and registered just six shots this season. He had a career-high 59 points (18 goals, 41 assists) in 70 games in 2019-20.
“(Strome) is still trying to find his game,” Quinn said. “He’s not happy with the way things have gone in these three games, but, obviously, we need him at the top of his game if we’re going to have a chance.”
Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, has yet to notch a point and had only two short shifts over the second half of the third period Tuesday.
“I just thought the (other) guys were playing a little bit better than (Lafreniere),” Quinn said. “Certainly not an indication of what we think of him. He’s going to be on one of those top two lines and get plenty of ice time.”
–Field Level Media