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Penguins notebook: Team about to find out if defense is improved

Jonathan Bombulie
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Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) covers a rebound before Columbus Blue Jackets’ Boone Jenner, right, can get his stick on it with Jamie Oleksiak (6) defending during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. The Penguins won 4-2.

The Pittsburgh Penguins believe they’ve been playing better defense lately.

They’re about to find out if they’re right.

After practicing Monday morning in Cranberry, the Penguins left for a two-game road trip that will stop Tuesday in Winnipeg and the next night in Colorado.

In Winnipeg, winger Patrik Laine is coming off a five-goal game in an 8-4 win over St. Louis on Saturday. In Colorado, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon are 1-2 in the league scoring race.

With all due respect to Tampa Bay, Toronto and Washington, it’s tough to imagine a more difficult two-game stretch for a defense.

“It’s a tough test, but these are the games that we want right now,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “We want to find out about ourselves and how we need to compete against these top teams.”

The Penguins’ belief they have improved defensively is based in statistical reality. They’ve allowed five goals in their past three games after giving up 40 in the 10 before that.

The question is whether the improvement is the exception or the rule for a team that has struggled through most of the first two months of the season.

“We’ll have a really good idea of where our defensive structure is at after these two games,” goalie Casey DeSmith said. “Obviously we all have faith in each other, and I have faith in all these guys. We’re looking for four points.”

Fast Laine

The Penguins were generally in awe of Laine’s accomplishment after he became the 45th player in NHL history to score five goals in a game.

“I think three of those goals were off the post and one was his (Alex Ovechkin) power-play slap shot one-timer deal,” DeSmith said. “Guy knows how to score, and that’s pretty impressive because in this game that we’re playing now, chances are hard to come by. To finish those chances with how good goalies are now, that’s really impressive too.”

Sidney Crosby was most impressed by Laine’s efficiency.

“I think he had five shots on net,” Crosby said. “That’s even more incredible.”

Scoring chances

Tristan Jarry gained some national acclaim earlier this month when he became the first Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goalie to score goal, putting a puck into an empty net against Springfield.

Given his status as a 23-year-old with 28 games of NHL experience, it’s not a feat he’s likely to try again now that he’s been called up.

“I think for me, being a little bit younger, I have to be a little bit more calculated,” Jarry said.

That’ll be fine with coach Mike Sullivan, who hasn’t exactly given Jarry the green light to shoot.

“I think we’ve got way more important things to think about rather than whether or not Tristan’s going to score a goal,” Sullivan said. “We want him to make saves.”

Injury report

With injuries beginning to pile up, the Penguins could be getting at least one player back in short order.

Center Derek Grant, who missed the last two games with an unspecified injury, took part in practice Monday. He wore a no-contact jersey but said he was able to work in some contact before the skate was over.

“I just fell funny,” Grant said, describing how his injury happened. “Something I just gotta play through, I think, but I felt good out there today.”

Winger Patric Hornqvist, out with a concussion, did not participate in practice. Center Matt Cullen, goalie Matt Murray and defenseman Justin Schultz remain out on a long-term basis.

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected]
or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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