Slumping Penguins lose more stars

Bad news as injuries shelve Staal, Neal for weeks

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With another critical round of injury news the Penguins have reached a tipping point: They face additional weeks of finding fill-ins for some of their best players while trying to deliver on veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik's challenge that they intensify their drive to win.

Sunday, as the club clung to eighth place -- the final playoff spot -- in the Eastern Conference, coach Dan Bylsma announced the latest injury news:

• Jordan Staal's left knee injury, incurred Friday in a collision with Mike Rupp of the Rangers, will keep him out four to six weeks. It's medial collateral ligament damage, not a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won't require surgery, so it's not as bad as it could have been. But the adept two-way center and top penalty-killer was having a great season, with 15 goals and 21 points in 34 games.

• Top-line right winger James Neal's foot was broken in the third period of Saturday's 3-1 loss to New Jersey when he blocked a shot by the Devils' Henrik Tallinder. "In the next few days we'll see what that timetable looks like, but it's weeks, not days," Bylsma said. Neal was leading the team with 21 goals and the NHL with 10 power-play goals.

• Craig Adams, one of the team's best defensive forwards, will have his right knee evaluated today after he left Sunday's practice at Consol Energy Center limping badly following a collision in the slot with Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Adams lay on the ice clutching the knee before being helped off. Bylsma said Adams aggravated a previous injury.

The Penguins, who have lost four games in a row, already are without center and captain Sidney Crosby (concussion symptoms), top offensive defenseman Kris Letang (concussion), promising forward Dustin Jeffrey (knee) and hard-nosed forward Arron Asham (knee). Crosby and Letang are out indefinitely. Jeffrey returned to practice over the weekend and could be close to playing. Asham's status is unclear.

In addition, several other regulars have missed anywhere from one to 20 games this season because of injury. The Penguins have 215 man-games lost through 40 games.

The Penguins will need to add at least a forward or two before Tuesday's home game against Ottawa. They probably will dip into their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton American Hockey League club for that, but with so many players out, some for what could be long-term, the Penguins might explore the trade market before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

The top healthy goal-scorers are Evgeni Malkin (16), Chris Kunitz (13) and Pascal Dupuis (11). That's 40 goals. Neal and Staal have combined for 36.

The team's payroll is about $61.4 million; the NHL salary cap is $64.3 million. That doesn't leave a lot of room for the addition of a proven goal-scorer without giving up someone on the roster.

General manager Ray Shero was out of town at scouting meetings and not available for comment, but Bylsma said the latest injury news was too fresh for the Penguins to have had organizational talks about trades.

"We haven't really gone to [that] extent, but we understand where we're at," Bylsma said. "We understand we're going to have to recall one if not two players to step in, and they're going to be playing significant roles."

What the Penguins need most right now are goals -- they have scored just five during their four-game skid -- and perhaps a renewed will to win even with a makeshift lineup.

After Saturday's loss Orpik, an alternate captain, said the Penguins are starting strong but wilting after they give up a couple of goals. He called on "better accountability," which "has to come from the guys in the room, putting pressure on each other."

Bylsma didn't dispute Orpik's message.

"I don't think there's a denial on anybody's part on that part -- we need to be able to react better and play better and stay focused on playing our game regardless of the situation," he said.

This is the second season in a row injuries have hit the Penguins hard. Last season, Crosby, Staal and Malkin each missed half or nearly half the season, and several others were hurt.

It might be understandable if the Penguins who are still standing had reached a breaking point in trying to win without key players, but veteran winger Matt Cooke said no one is crying, "Uncle."

"There's no time for that," Cooke said. "We could sit here and feel sorry for ourselves all we want, but at the end of the day, we've got to play Tuesday and [the games coming up] are just as important as the ones we just played."

New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur beat the Penguins Saturday by making 41 saves. He was impressed.

"They've got so many injuries. At one point it was going to hit them a little bit," Brodeur said. "But don't count them out. These guys are a good hockey club. They're missing how many guys and they're still a tough team to play against. A really tough team."

Which is exactly what the Penguins hope to be.

"We want to be a very difficult team to play against," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "Obviously, we're missing some high-end talent, but this isn't the first time that we've had to battle that.

"We know how to win without everybody in the locker room, without everybody perfectly healthy, and we have to get back there, starting Tuesday night."


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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