PITTSBURGH -- An hour or so before his teammates would hit the ice for their morning skate ahead of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, the only sound in an empty PPG Paints Arena was that of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley's skates digging into the ice as he pushed himself while recovering from a lower-body injury that has sidelined him since Game 5 of the second round.
It wasn't the first time he had skated on his own, and on Tuesday before boarding a plane for Ottawa, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Daley was progressing and getting closer to joining his teammates for practice, the next step in his recovery.
And they might need him now more than ever. The Penguins' defense is as thin as it has been in these playoffs, which is saying something.
Kris Letang has been out since before the playoffs after neck surgery. Then Daley went down against the Washington Capitals. And the Penguins might be without Justin Schultz, who left Game 2 early because of an upper-body injury. Schultz joined the team on the trip to Ottawa and didn't have a sling or cast while boarding the team plane, but Sullivan said he's day to day (as are injured forwards Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist). Game 3 is Wednesday night at 8 ET.
Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, who left Game 2 early with an injury, boards the team plane headed for Ottawa. pic.twitter.com/4FkfdoRr55— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) May 16, 2017
Making it even more challenging is that Letang, Daley and Schultz are the Penguins' best puck movers and offensive catalysts from the defense. The Penguins did a great job sustaining offensive pressure in Game 2 against the Ottawa Senators, in part because of an active defense, but getting the puck consistently out of their own zone has been an issue this spring.
Through Game 2, the Penguins are controlling only 42 percent of the even-strength shot attempts during the playoffs, by far the worst of the four remaining teams. That's a direct result of losing those strong puck movers on the back end.
On Tuesday, Sullivan stressed that the solution wouldn't come from their replacement in the lineup but from a collective effort.
"It takes five guys out there working cooperatively to have success," Sullivan said. "Whether it be our play without the puck and our D-zone coverage or our neutral-zone forecheck or our play with the puck when it comes to breakouts, or our end-zone play or our power play, for that matter -- it's a collective effort that's what makes teams what they are, and I think our players understand it."
If Schultz can't play in Game 3, the Penguins probably will turn to veteran Mark Streit, a real luxury for a team that is moving pretty swiftly down the defensive depth chart. GM Jim Rutherford didn't have a splashy trade deadline, but the quiet depth additions of defensemen Streit and Ron Hainsey have turned out to be critical to his team's run.
Streit played 19 games for the Penguins in the regular season, scoring one goal and adding five assists and going minus-2 while averaging 17:06 of ice time. He hasn't played since April 9, over a month of sitting, so rust will be an issue early, but a couple of sources around the league expected him to fill in capably for Schultz if necessary.
"It was only three months ago he was playing 20 minutes [per game] with the Flyers," one coach said. "He's a smart guy, too. Some guys might try to play over their head, and I don't think Mark is like that. The fact that Ottawa doesn't seem to come hard all the time [on the forecheck] will be a strength for Mark. He's pretty good at finding seams."
Added one Western Conference scout via text: "I think he will be fine. He is smart, and he has above-average skills. His skating may be a slight issue, but his smarts will help make up for that. ... Games have not been real physical, and that will help him as well."
Streit can also work his way around a power play. When he was with the Philadelphia Flyers this season, only Shayne Gostisbehere got more time on the power play among Flyers defensemen than Streit's 2:31. That number dropped to 1:40 after the trade to the Penguins, but the only Pittsburgh defensemen to average more than a minute per game on the power play during the regular season are the injured Letang, Daley and Schultz.
The Penguins' power play is 0-for-11 going back to the Capitals series. Even with the drought, it is at 18.6 percent in the playoffs, compared with 13.6 percent for the Senators.
"We're fine," Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said of the injuries to the power play. "We have a couple more [defensemen] deep, for sure. I think it's Streit back, he's a power-play guy. He plays enough. ... He's good. He controls the puck. He's a good guy who can shoot and assist, too. I think he helps so much [if] he plays tomorrow."
That's how it has gone so far for the Penguins. A man goes down, the next one steps in. But as the playoffs grind on, this is a defense that could definitely use positive news on the injury front.