The NHL trade deadline is 22 days away. The Penguins should find out well before that whether Evgeni Malkin has any shot of playing again this season.
His chances do not look great after he was diagnosed Saturday with torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee. Although Malkin and the Penguins are exploring options with doctors, season-ending surgery seems likely.
General manager Ray Shero could shop for a deal to help reinforce his stable of forwards, which is particularly depleted at center. Having Malkin's $8.7 million salary-cap hit off the books for months because of his long-term injury could facilitate a trade.
Having him off the roster is a blow.
"You're talking about Evgeni Malkin, the quality of player that he is, a guy that's won a scoring title and a Conn Smythe [Trophy as playoff MVP]," coach Dan Bylsma said.
"That's a tough injury for [him]."
Game: Penguins at Washington Capitals, 12:38 p.m. today, Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
TV, radio, Internet: WPXI, WXDX-FM (105.9), http://penguins.nhl.com.
Penguins: Are 11-2 vs. Southeast Division, including 1-1 vs. Capitals. ... Have best road penalty killing in NHL, 90.6 percent. ... Team 2.18 goals-against average among league's best.
Capitals: Are 7-2-4 vs. Atlantic Division. ... Have allowed just 39 goals in past 21 games.... Alex Ovechkin led NHL with 247 shots, 7 game-winning goals before Saturday.
Of note: : Washington is 3-7-6 in its past 16 games vs. teams above the playoff line.
Malkin, 24, who was injured Friday in the 3-2 win against Buffalo when he and Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers collided, has the latest and, perhaps, most significant injury among Penguins who primarily play center -- although no one knows how much longer a concussion will keep leading scorer Sidney Crosby out of the lineup.
Mark Letestu, a rookie who has played well and, at times, on the top three lines, faces arthroscopic surgery for a knee injury and will be out a month or more.
"We've had some practice over the last [several] games with this situation, so I don't think there are big adjustments that are made at this point in time," Bylsma said.
The Penguins, perhaps remarkably, have won five games in a row and eight of their past nine to remain in contention for any and all NHL regular-season titles, even while juggling centers and adjusting line combinations.
Malkin had been hindered by a left knee injury that helped limit him to 15 goals, 37 points in 43 games. He returned Friday from a layoff caused by a sinus infection that included five games plus the all-star weekend.
Letestu has missed two games. Crosby has not played since Jan. 5, and his return is not imminent.
Most of the players were en route to the airport from Consol Energy Center after practice when Bylsma got the bleak results of Malkin's MRI. The Penguins play an afternoon NBC-TV game today at Washington.
They had an idea Malkin's injury was serious and formed opinions on their capability of playing without star players from recent experience.
"It's going to be interesting to see the way the rest of the season unfolds," center Jordan Staal said. "We've faced a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries. So far, everyone on this team has been stepping up and doing a great job, including myself, but I've got to be even better than I have been."
With Malkin, Crosby and Letestu on the shelf for some time, Staal, Max Talbot, rookie Dustin Jeffrey and Craig Adams are the top centers -- with Staal stepping into the most prominent role of his career.
Staal, 22, has established himself as one of the top two-way forwards in the NHL. He missed the first 39 games of the season because of foot and hand injuries, and, until the past couple of weeks, always had Crosby and/or Malkin to deflect a lot of attention.
Staal has three goals, eight points in 11 games, has been physical and strong on the puck. Already a top penalty-killer, he has moved to the top unit on the power play, too. Physically, he still is rounding into top form, but his mental game is strong.
"That's definitely been the biggest surprise for myself," he said. "Just jumping in with the systems and everything, the way we play the game, I feel like I've jumped into that and felt really comfortable."
Bylsma said Staal already is as critical to the Penguins as any player could be, even if he has not gotten the same recognition as Crosby and Malkin.
"The importance of the minutes he plays, who he's playing against, how he plays the game and what he can bring to our team isn't changing because of the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin," Bylsma said.
"If he steps out of that shadow, it's going to be because [reporters] stopped writing about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"He's been front and center and a big part of our team and being that guy for our team for a while."
He has had help while the team has been short-handed.
"We've been doing it the right way," Talbot said. "Guys have stepped up quite a bit. There's not much to change. We've been winning."
With four games this week, five over the next eight days, the Penguins promoted forward Tim Wallace (15 goals, 28 points in 45 games) from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for some insurance unless or until a bigger move is made.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721. First Published February 6, 2011 5:00 AM