SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Pittsburgh Penguins dealt with adversity in the form of injuries last season and excelled from what they learned in the end.
Now the process starts all over.
To the casual observer it's easy to assume travel and playing their first game on a foreign coast did in the Penguins on Tuesday night, when they lost to the San Jose Sharks 2-1. How else can you explain getting outshot 34-11?
Well, consider this: While the Penguins were flying from the East on Sunday, the Sharks were returning from Tampa after being away from California for a week. Historically, the Sharks play a stinker in their first game at home after crossing multiple time zones, but that wasn't the case against the Penguins on Tuesday.
No, the reason Pittsburgh looked a step slower until the final five minutes is because the Penguins are struggling without two main cogs on defense, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. And there are going to be more nights like Tuesday.
It's not easy replacing the team's two most accomplished threats from the blue line, two of the more poised defensemen on the roster. Gonchar, 34, has 615 points during his splendid 13-year career of 904 games. Whitney, 25, has 137 points in 225 contests.
"We're not going to replace that kind of offense," Brooks Orpik said.
Whitney will be out at least until December as he rehabilitates from offseason surgery to fix a left-foot deformity he no longer could play through. Gonchar sustained a dislocated shoulder during the team's preseason opener. And after soliciting several opinions, he opted for surgery that will force him to watch for most of the regular season. To complicate the issue, veteran Hal Gill hurt a hand while blocking a shot and is out for the time being.
"We've lost our top defensemen, but lots of other teams get hurt, too," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "There are not many teams that could lose three of your top four and still keep competing for points. We know at times it could be tough and frustrating because you play players that are not in what their roles are supposed to be."
That indeed was the case Tuesday when it was Goligoski quarterbacking Pittsburgh's first power-play unit instead of Gonchar. When the 23-year-old rookie hesitated and made a soft pass at the Pittsburgh blue line, the Sharks were quick to jump on the turnover. Seconds later the miscue was in the back of Pittsburgh's net, courtesy of a Joe Pavelski short-handed goal.
This is not to hang Goligoski out to dry. He's a strong skater with offensive flash and a big upside. A second-round pick in 2004, Goligoski set an AHL record for defensemen last season by scoring 28 points in 23 playoff games, this after recovering from an early-season shoulder injury.
"Goligoski has done a good job with that first power-play unit," Orpik said. "But he's 22, 21, whatever he is; this is his first full season, and you can't expect way too much."
Letang is in a similar situation. Selected a year after Goligoski but quicker to reach the NHL – the 21-year-old had 79 games of experience before Tuesday – Letang is seeing on average better than 21 minutes a game.
"Letang is doing a great job, but for him to play against top-line players is still a big step," Therrien said. "They have no choice but to learn really fast, faster than we were expecting at the beginning of the year, but that's the reality."
The high-powered Penguins mustered three shots in the first, five in the second and three in the third – not numbers anyone would expect. In all, it was a franchise-record low permitted by the Sharks, who spent most of the game in the Pittsburgh end because the visitors couldn't get the puck out.
"I'm not going to beat around the bush and say we can fill the shoes of those guys, but you can do a little bit to help out and that's what we're trying to do," Sydor said.
Pittsburgh has been able to mask the problem to date. The Penguins are 5-3-2 and have permitted only 22 goals in those 10 games. That, however, speaks more to the outstanding goaltending of No. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury and Tuesday night's starter, Dany Sabourin. Pittsburgh has allowed an average of 33.7 shots per contest, one of the highest totals in the league.
"We're missing some pretty skilled guys, and guys we look to on the power play," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We've probably simplified things a little bit, which is never a bad thing. Everyone has to pay attention to detail. We make safe plays because we don't want to give teams opportunities if we don't have to."
The Penguins aren't looking for sympathy. They know they won't find it from 28 teams that sat around and watched them play in the Stanley Cup Finals last spring.
And you won't hear Therrien whining, at least not yet. "We've got to protect our defense," he said. "Our transition game isn't quite what I wish. We know eventually we will get better. It's not a concern right now. We're still able to get points – big points in the standings – that's why I'm still optimistic."