Sooner or later, the injury train was going to make its stop in Pittsburgh, and a little over a week ago, the Penguins felt its effects. Second-line winger Rickard Rakell was placed on injured reserve because of an undisclosed injury. Rakell had not scored a goal through the first 17 games of the season, and it is not clear when he is expected to return. Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel is also currently out of the lineup with an undisclosed injury. These injuries have forced the team to shuffle their lines and give some younger players the opportunity to shine.
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Things have not been going well for Rakell this season. He only had four assists through the first 17 games while averaging 15 minutes and 35 seconds of ice time. However, despite his lack of offensive contributions, his defensive work on the second line has been solid.
Rakell is not the only member of the top six who has been missing from action, as Bryan Rust was also sidelined with a lower-body injury. Because of this, coach Mike Sullivan had to make some adjustments to his lines, moving Drew O’Connor to the top six. For most of the season, O’Connor has been on the third line with Lars Eller and Radim Zohorna. He skated on the first line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel for three games while Rust was out.
On Saturday, Nov. 25, in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, O’Connor notched the primary assist on Guentzel’s first-period goal. Even though his time on the first line was short-lived, he proved why he deserved to be there in the first place. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, his tall, lanky frame allows him to hunt down and battle for the puck. He is also not afraid to play tough, and his strong skating helps him to generate offensive opportunities.
With Rust back in the lineup, O’Connor has now been moved down to the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith. At 25 years old, he has now played in 99 NHL games and scored nine goals with 13 assists, which suggests he is probably better suited as a bottom-six player. However, he has proven he can rise to the occasion when asked to. He can play on both sides of the puck, and the Penguins are liking what they are seeing from him so far this season.
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Since O’Connor has moved up to the second line for the time being, the Penguins have called up Jansen Harkins from the AHL to fill the hole on the third line. Harkins is no stranger to Pittsburgh, as he earned a roster spot coming out of preseason and skated on the third line for the first four games of the season. After he failed to record a point through four games, he was placed on waivers, and once he cleared, he was sent down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The game against the Maple Leafs was his first game with the Penguins since Oct. 18. He played a physical game against Toronto, which Pittsburgh could use more of. He was on the ice for 6:38 and saw 1:26 on the second power-play unit. On paper, it may not appear that he made a huge difference in the game, but he played with a lot of energy and made his presence known on the forecheck.
Penguins Must Now Readjust
Just when it looked like the Penguins were starting to get in a good rhythm, they got thrown a curve ball. Now, with some new faces on the ice, they must once again readjust their game plan, and with the halfway point of the season a little over a month away, time is not on their side.