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Penguins ponder ways to possibly replace injured Fehr

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USA Today Sports
Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki checks Penguins forward Eric Fehr during the second period Feb. 2, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguin's Eric Fehr plays against the Senators on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.

In the Penguins’ dressing room at Consol Energy Center and in their room at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, the stalls of Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen sit side by side, with only goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s stall to the right.

Arguably no forwards among the Penguins are more appropriate stall mates for Fleury than Fehr and Cullen, a pair of trusted penalty killers and checking-line centers this season.

With Fehr not present at practice Wednesday and his health and availability still in question, Cullen sat dutifully at his stall and answered question after question about what the Penguins might lack if his veteran cohort’s lower-body injury becomes a long-term ordeal.

“I’m hopeful it won’t be bad,” he said. “(The injury) didn’t look good, but we don’t know anything yet.

“He’s just a good team guy. He’s good in the locker room. He makes it fun for guys. He brings a whole lot to our penalty kill, and I think his five-on-five play has been really good. I don’t think he’s been rewarded, points-wise, for as well as he’s played, but he’s a guy that means a lot to our team.”

Because the Penguins’ next game comes at Tampa Bay on Friday, coach Mike Sullivan and his players are holding out hope that Fehr can recover from whatever ailment caused him to leave in the second period of Tuesday’s win over Ottawa. He did not return after absorbing a hit in a corner of the Senators’ defensive zone and struggled to get to the bench.

Sullivan shared his confidence in the Penguins’ ability to cope with the potential absence of Fehr.

“We’ve got some options,” he said. “Kevin Porter is a center by trade. We can move him in there. We have options in Wilkes-Barre. … I think we have enough versatility on our team where we can fill that void.”

While the Penguins’ improved offensive output under Sullivan drew most of the headlines and attention over the past month, their defensive improvement attracted less fanfare. Even with a higher pace of play, the team has allowed fewer shots on goal (27.8), scoring chances (23.9) and shot attempts (48.0) per 60 minutes of five-on-five play under Sullivan than it did under Mike Johnston, according to war-on-ice.com. Forwards such as Fehr and Cullen found their comfort levels in a speed-friendly system tailored for the team’s stars.

“We really try to cycle and take plays from the goal line,” Fehr recently said of his line, which included Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust on the wings. “I don’t think we’re really making any fancy plays in the slot. And we’re not hitting our pop-out guys maybe as much as we could. … We’re working on trying to become a little bit more offensive and finding a time to take chances and when to keep the possession.”

Asked to move from wing to center after Nick Bonino suffered a hand injury Jan. 14, Fehr made a seamless transition and combined with Kuhnhackl and Rust to comprise a line that has held opponents to a shot-attempt rate well below the Penguins’ overall rate.

“He took over the leadership role, especially with me and Rusty, we haven’t played a lot of games in this league yet,” Kuhnhackl said. “He helped us a lot, gave us advice whenever he could. Obviously, we’re going to miss him.”

Cullen centered between Kuhnhackl and Rust after Fehr left Tuesday’s game.

“I’ve been really impressed with their game, the way they possess the puck down low and in the corners,” Cullen said of the 24-year-old Kuhnhackl and 23-year-old Rust. “In the offensive zone, they’re really good turning pucks over from the defense and creating offense out of it. That fits with my style pretty well.”

When Cullen briefly moved elsewhere in the lineup for the Vancouver game Jan. 23 because of a lack of depth at the left wing, Porter moved from a wing to center on the fourth line.

“It’s more of trying to get back to your own end and realizing that you’ve got to go back and play down low instead of stopping high and covering the point men,” Porter said of the position adjustment. “I don’t think it’s going to be too tough. A few shifts and I should be OK.”

Porter, however, realizes there’s a difference between filling the position and replacing what Fehr provided.

“Big on the forecheck, controlling the puck down low, playing a lot of hard minutes in (the opponent’s) end and wearing their D down,” Porter said, “so he’s a big loss for us.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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