Defensively, this season has been anything but ordinary.
A revolving door that has seen Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Jay McKee and Alex Goligoski — who is out of the lineup again with a lower body injury — miss time to injury has had one stalwart: Mark Eaton.
Eaton has played in all 28 games for the Penguins so far in 2009-10, sitting third on the team with a plus-7 rating. He doesn’t make big hits like Orpik or score goals with precision accuracy like Gonchar. He does, however, move on with a quiet and confident demeanor that has turned him in to one of the most reliable players on the squad.
“He goes out there, whether he’s the sixth defenseman or whether he’s the second defenseman, he seems to play the same way with the same demeanor,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “It’s tough to tell when his bad days are, because of matter-of-fact and how professional he is about the way he works and plays.”
That steadiness has taken him a while to develop, considering the beginning of his career in Pittsburgh was marred by injuries.
Eaton played just 35 games in 2006-07 and saw only one more contest (36) in 2007-08, suffering a season ending knee injury due to a slew-foot while retrieving a puck from behind the Penguins net.
Fans worried about his durability and wondered if he would ever develop in to a top blue liner in Pittsburgh.
Well, he’s done just that. And with the help of Martin Skoula and AHL call-ups of Ben Lovejoy, Nate Guenin and Deryk Engelland, he has helped the Penguins through their own rash of injury problems — Eaton not involved, of course, in missing time.
“It pays of in times of injuries and difficulties,” Bylsma said. “You know he going to come to the rink and work and bring the same mentality every day, no matter what the situation is. That wears off on guys.”
After dropping four of five games to start the month of November, the Penguins have finished 7-2 and begin December with wins in five of six. Most importantly, they seem to once again be playing like the team that started the season 9-1.
It’s a cycle the Pens have gone through every year — they’re own right of passage to mold and grow as a team. And now that most of the defense is back, along with Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot, the Pens are again clicking from all areas.
“Each team has to develop into their own identity, how we win, how we’re going to play,” Bylsma said. “You need some adversity. You need some different scenarios for your team to struggle through that. I think our team right now has a better sense right now of how to play and win games because of having gone through the first 28 games, a lot of that dealing with injuries.
“We’re better now and we have a better sense of our identity and how we’re going to play, because of what we’ve gone through, especially the last 15, 20 games. We still have to keep developing that. We have to keep working on that. You need that development on the team and in the (locker) room and how you win and how you play games to really have a chance of being how good you can become.
“You don’t like adversity. You don’t like injuries. But when you come out of them and your team has a better sense of itself and how guys step up it makes you a stronger team.”
And while Sidney Crosby has put up five goals and three assists in the last two games, along with a hat trick from Mike Rupp, Eaton continues to pile up games and solid performances. After tonight’s game against Colorado, he’ll need just 15 games for 400 in his career.
Not bad for an eight-year veteran who used to have trouble staying healthy enough to convince people he was good enough.
Chris | PPT