PITTSBURGH -- The distance between Wilkes Barre and the Consol Energy Center takes about five hours to navigate by highway.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been wearing out that path lately, summoning players from their American Hockey League affiliate to fill in with the NHL team.
The Penguins have had an uncommonly brutal run of injuries: Sidney Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (knee), Mark Letestu (knee), Chris Kunitz (lower body) and Arron Asham (upper body), along with Matt Cooke's four-game suspension.
Even one of the reinforcements -- center Dustin Jeffrey -- went out with an injury after he crashed into the goal in Thursday's home victory against Los Angeles.
Every organization needs depth, and the Penguins have plenty of help available at Wilkes Barre.
To facilitate the process of working new players into the lineup, the Penguins have standardized systems throughout the organization.
When players come up from Wilkes Barre, the quality of opposition is better and the venue is bigger.
But the basic systems the Penguins play? They're exactly the same.
"It's incredible," said defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who first came up last season. "It makes one giant less thing to think about when you get called up. When you get called up, you've got everything going through your head. You're nervous, you want to play well."
Playing with the same structure makes that transition easier. Instead of thinking, players just continue with the habits they've developed in the minor leagues.
Follow the plan, and you're always in the right place, carrying out the proper assignment.
"The systems that we play here come naturally to everybody who gets called up," Lovejoy said. "I joked last year that we had one nuance on an end zone faceoff that was different. Otherwise, it's the exact same thing. Everybody who's getting called up has played the system, and there's a comfort level that comes when you get here."
Coach Dan Bylsma has been on both ends of it. He was coaching at Wilkes Barre in 2009 when he was promoted to the Penguins. He was accustomed to preparing players for the NHL.
"Playing the same way makes some of those questions go away and allows the player to get to his skill set," he said.
Current assistant Todd Reirden coached at Wilkes Barre last season. The Penguins have the NHL and minor league staffs together in training camp to put together the foundation.
Then the coaches establish the structure for the season and follow the same blueprint.
"I think that's why our guys look comfortable when they come up," Reirden said. "They're just going out and playing hockey. To me it sets a young player up to have success."
Beyond the stop-gap issues brought on by injuries, there's also the goal of developing players through the system.
With a salary cap system, change is inevitable. With money committed to stars like Crosby and Malkin, it's important to develop complementary players who haven't begun to climb the pay scale.
Jeffrey, for example, could be an option if Max Talbot leaves this summer as a free agent.
The Penguins try to establish a comfort level so players up from the minors can showcase their talent.
"It's less stressful, especially in your first few games," Jeffrey said. "You don't want to be worrying about whether you're covering the right guy and where you need to be. I think it really helps."
Reirden, who works with the team's defensemen, said that's an area that really benefits from having a standard system.
"You can maybe hide a mistake on the wing sometimes," he said. "If a defenseman makes a mistake, there's a good chance the puck is in your net."
Reirden said that Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland were both able to settle in quickly last year because they knew what to do.
With as many as six players up from the minors, the need to assimilate new personnel is especially profound.
"It takes worrying out of the game," Jeffrey said. "You just have to worry about playing hockey. It kind of goes back to natural instincts. You have the systems pounded into your head from day one of training camp.
"We don't have to worry about that. The thing that we do naturally is the right thing because we play the same system there that we do here."
SUBHEAD: Mistakes by the lake
Time again for a periodic update on the woes of Mike Rupp, Cleveland sports fan.
Rupp is a native of Cleveland who follows all of his hometown teams.
The NBA Cavaliers just set a record with a 26-game losing streak. They won at home Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers, their first victory since Dec. 18.
It didn't used to be that way, but Lebron James fled for Miami and the Cavaliers haven't recovered.
"It's kind of a Catch-22 right now," Rupp said. "They need better players to win, but the better players don't want to go there because the team is down."
There's always the draft, though, right?
"It's not supposed to be a very good draft year," Rupp said.
SUBHEAD: Out of control
Friday's fight-filled game against the New York Islanders was an embarrassment to the league.
It had its roots in the Islanders' Feb. 2 visit to Consol Energy Center, when backup goalie Brent Johnson knocked Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro down with a punch that also shattered facial bones.
The Islanders were upset that the Penguins were laughing about the fight and kept showing it on the video screen.
That led to Friday's debacle, which resulted in a combined 351 penalty minutes.
If the Penguins want to continue the hostility, it would be a bad idea.
Their next game against the Islanders is on April 8, a week before the playoffs start.
That's no time to risk injuries or disciplinary action from the NHL.