The Penguins are not a better team when Evgeni Malkin isn't playing.
They know it. People throughout the NHL know it. Anyone who assesses the situation logically knows it. No matter what the numbers say.
Sure, the Penguins had gone 4-1 in the five games before their 3-2 victory against Buffalo at Consol Energy Center Friday night, even though Malkin missed them all because of a sinus infection.
And. yeah, it's true that they trailed the Sabres, 2-0, before Malkin left the game with an apparent right-knee injury in the first minute of the second period, then ran off three unanswered goals in less than seven minutes after he departed.
Doesn't matter. Not to Malkin's teammates, anyway.
"It'd be great to convince ourselves [that the Penguins are better when Malkin isn't playing]," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "But I don't think so."
How long they will be without him this time isn't known. Coach Dan Bylsma offered no insight on the nature or severity of Malkin's injury, although at least some ligament damage seems likely.
Malkin has been bothered throughout this season by a problem with his left knee, but it appeared that his right knee was hurt this time when Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers fell on it 27 seconds into the second.
"We both kind of twisted up kind of funny," Myers said. "I think I collided with his lower body somewhere in the boards. I didn't go in there looking to hurt him."
After that contact, Malkin was prone on the ice for a couple of minutes. He then skated to the locker room without assistance and did not return.
Losing him meant the Penguins were again without three of their top four centers; Sidney Crosby sat out his 12th consecutive game because of a concussion, and Mark Letestu is expected to miss 4-6 weeks because of a knee injury that will be surgically repaired.
Despite being without so many players down the middle, the Penguins have won five games in a row and are 8-1 in their past nine.
"We're coming together as a team and not changing how we're playing," forward Mike Rupp said. "We're not playing conservatively. We're still playing the same way we were with [Crosby and Malkin]."
The game was Buffalo's first since Jan. 25, and the Sabres needed a while to shake off the rust that accumulated during their extended break.
Seventeen seconds, to be precise. That is how long it took Paul Gaustad to stake his team to a 1-0 lead, as he threw his own rebound past Fleury from in front of the crease on the first shift of the game.
Mike Grier put the Sabres up by two at 7:03, when his pass from along the goal line to the left of the net hit the skate of Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland and wobbled inside the right post.
During a long stoppage in play 43 seconds later, the arena scoreboard showed a video tribute to the Steelers, with "Renegade" as the soundtrack. Seemed appropriate, since the Penguins really could have used a field goal at that point.
"They came out pretty hard," Penguins right winger Tyler Kennedy said. "Maybe they were rusty, but maybe they were excited to play, too. When you have that much time off, guys get revved up to play."
The Penguins began to regain their equilibrium as the period moved along, and regrouped completely during the intermission.
Dustin Jeffrey made it 2-1 at 3:50 of the second, when the rebound of his shot hit the skate of Buffalo forward Tim Connolly and caromed behind goalie Ryan Miller for his second goal in the past three games.
Kennedy tied the score by beating Miller with a wrist shot from just above the right dot at 6:24 for his ninth of the season, and Matt Cooke put the Penguins in front to stay at 7:04, thanks to some nice work by Jordan Staal.
After Nathan Gerbe stole the puck from Staal in the Sabres' end, Staal swiped it right back and fed Cooke, who flipped a backhander past Miller's glove for the winner.
That gave the Penguins three goals in seven minutes, and it did not matter that Crosby was out of town and Malkin was in the medical room.
Dave Molinari: email@example.com . First Published February 5, 2011 5:00 AM