The Penguins have proven over the past few years that they can get by without a core player.
Or two. Or more.
Which doesn't mean they're interested in doing it again.
That's a possibility, however, after center Evgeni Malkin had to leave their 3-1 victory against Florida at Consol Energy Center Friday night during the third period because of an unspecified injury.
Malkin departed at 4:51, after Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson knocked him into the boards behind the Florida goal line, capping a sequence in which Malkin had tried to take the puck to the net.
His back struck the boards first. His head followed suit, but only after it had snapped back violently.
"It didn't look good," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said.
No penalty was called, and the Penguins said nothing to suggest they felt one was in order.
"I just finished my check," Gudbranson said. "You never want to see a guy go down. He's in a vulnerable position, but you can't pass up a hit like that.
"You never know. He goes around the net, guy gets the puck and passes it back-door to him. It's unfortunate that he got hurt on the play, but it's [a hit] that I'd take every time."
There was no immediate word on the nature or severity of Malkin's injury, although there appeared to be no shortage of possibilities. A concussion or a whiplash-type neck problem certainly seemed possible, and an issue with his back could not be ruled out.
"He's being further evaluated this evening," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We'll know more [today]."
Malkin left the ice without assistance, but went directly to the locker room and did not return.
If Malkin is out for a significant period, it would be a severe blow to the Penguins, who raised their record to 12-6 and evened their mark on home ice at 4-4.
He is their No. 2 scorer with four goals and 17 assists in 18 games and has formed a lethal partnership with right winger James Neal.
"Hopefully, we don't have to deal with [an extended absence], but, if that's the case, we're all going to have to raise our level of play," Crosby said. "He's a big part of our team.
"When you lose guys like that, you can't replace them, but everyone has to find a way to step up."
Bylsma suggested that if Malkin is sidelined, Brandon Sutter would move into his spot with Neal and rookie Beau Bennett, who got his first steady work with Malkin and Neal on Friday night, while Dustin Jeffrey could be shifted to the third line, likely with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
The game was scoreless until 8:25 of the second, when Florida's Mike Weaver scored from the right point.
The goal initially was credited to Jonathan Huberdeau, an early rookie of the year candidate, but he apparently didn't touch Weaver's shot before it eluded Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins countered quickly when, at 10:41, Chris Kunitz poked a loose puck past Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom on a power play for his seventh of the season.
That extended the Penguins' streak of games with a man-advantage goal to 10 and ended a run of 23 consecutive failed power plays against the Panthers.
Until Kunitz scored, the Penguins had been frustrated repeatedly by the 6-foot-6 Markstrom.
"He takes up a lot of net," Crosby said. "You have to put your shot in a good spot because he's got a good chance of getting something on it."
Matt Niskanen's winner at 7:49 of the third sailed past Markstrom's glove, which had grabbed everything thrown its way most of the game, even though it actually wasn't intended to.
"I was actually aiming for his pad," Niskanen said. "There wasn't a screen, so I was hoping for maybe a rebound or something. But it snuck through somehow."
Dustin Jeffrey, a healthy scratch for nine of the previous 10 games, added an insurance goal at 15:15, as the Penguins were rewarded in the third for wearing down the Panthers.
"We invested early," Niskanen said. "We put a lot of pucks behind their [defensemen].
"They had to go back, and that makes for a long night for a defenseman, when you make them go back, over and over and you hit them and have extended shifts in their zone."
That plan obviously paid off. The Penguins can only hope they won't have to again break out the one that allowed them to remain competitive when guys like Crosby and Malkin have been hurt in recent seasons.
"It's something we've dealt with well here in the last couple of years," Jeffrey said. "Obviously, he's a huge piece, and what he brings to the team ... there's not a lot of guys in the league who bring that element to their team."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the Penguins' record this season. The team is 12-6. (Published Feb. 23, 2013)
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published February 23, 2013 5:00 AM