TAMPA, Fla. -- The Penguins lost a world-class center Sunday night.
Precisely what's wrong with Evgeni Malkin -- and how long he might be out -- isn't known yet.
He apparently was hurt when a shot by teammate Kris Letang struck him on the lower right leg or foot late in the second period of the Penguins' 2-1 victory against Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Malkin did not return, and coach Dan Bylsma didn't offer much of a prognosis.
"I don't have a great feel for the severity," he said.
But regardless of how serious -- or minor -- Malkin's injury turns out to be, the Penguins know they could have come out of this game in far worse shape than they did. Their other world-class center got what appeared, at first blush, to be a potentially catastrophic injury in the first minute of play.
Sidney Crosby was skating toward the Lightning zone 40 seconds into the game when Lightning right winger Steve Downie rode him down to the ice from behind, causing Crosby's right knee to bend at a decidedly unnatural angle.
"I thought it was going to be pretty bad," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
It didn't take a medical degree to reach that conclusion, and Crosby adjourned to the bench while Downie went to the penalty box to serve a roughing minor.
Crosby, to the amazement of the crowd that had gasped audibly when a replay of the incident was shown on the arena scoreboard, ventured onto the ice during a stoppage at 1:57 to test the knee and, about 90 seconds later, was back in the game.
"For a minute or two, I was pretty scared," Crosby said. "But with time, it was able to go away a little bit."
Enough that what looked like a season-ending injury -- and just might have been for anybody whose flexibility doesn't rival that of Gumby -- turned out to be more of a minor inconvenience.
Not enough, certainly, to prevent Crosby from extending his scoring streak to nine games, which he did by setting up Sergei Gonchar's winning goal.
Orpik said Downie "definitely tried to slew-foot" Crosby, but Crosby was a bit more restrained in critiquing the sequence on which he was hurt.
"I saw the replay between periods," he said. "He kind of got his leg underneath me and was trying to catch up with me there. He got me in a pretty bad position.
"I don't think there's a need for his leg to be behind my knee like that, but after we both fall, I guess anything can happen. But when you put your leg behind a guy like that, it's a little questionable. But those things happen. It's part of the game sometimes."
Downie described the play this way: "We were battling for ice. I got my hands on him to push him away. We fell weird."
There was no way of knowing whether Crosby's knee would swell overnight, but he downplayed concerns about that.
"I've been through the high-ankle sprains and stuff like that, and have a pretty good idea of when you're in big trouble and what areas they are," he said. "And I didn't hurt anything significant around there."
The victory pulled the Penguins out of a 0-1-1 winless streak and moved them four points ahead of second-place New Jersey in the Atlantic Division. The Devils have two games in hand.
The points they took from the Lightning didn't come easy. Tampa Bay is trying to claw into a playoff spot, and its desperation showed.
"That felt like a playoff game," Bylsma said.
"They played it with intensity. They were making it hard."
Vincent Lecavalier staked the Lightning to a 1-0 lead at 8:09 of the second period, and the Penguins couldn't counter until Pascal Dupuis swatted a loose puck past Tampa Bay goalie Antero Niittymaki from between the crease and the left circle at 2:20 of the third.
That was Dupuis' 17th of the season and fourth in seven games, but just the Penguins' second in a span of nearly 137 minutes.
"We've played well and created some good chances and goalies made some saves against us," Crosby said. "But you like your chances when you do that, time after time."
The Penguins needed one more goal, and got it when Gonchar scored during a power play at 5:17, giving them a most satisfying conclusion to a game that began like a nightmare.
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 15, 2010 4:00 AM