The Penguins understand that victories don't come cheap at this level.
But they might not have realized until the past few weeks just how exorbitant the price of success can be.
Yeah, the Penguins (20-16-2) have accumulated a lot of points lately, especially while winning four of their past five games, and they have reclaimed a place in the Eastern Conference playoff field, but almost every victory seems to come with a significant injury attached.
The latest to go down is left winger Gary Roberts, whose left fibula was broken when Buffalo center Tim Connolly fell on the outside of his leg at 11:32 of the second period in the Penguins' 2-0 victory at Mellon Arena last night.
The fibula is the smaller of two long bones between the knee and ankle and is not a weight-bearing bone.
There will not be a prognosis until Roberts is examined by the Penguins' team physician, Dr. Charles Burke, but preliminary indications are that the break was clean and might not require surgery. If that proves to be the case, a highly unofficial guesstimate that he will need a recovery period of four to six weeks seems realistic.
Roberts, 41, started slowly this season, at least in part because of a respiratory ailment whose impact was compounded by his asthma, but came on strong in recent weeks and had joined with Erik Christensen and Georges Laraque on an effective line. He had a season-high three points, two of them goals, in the Penguins' 4-2 victory against Boston last Sunday, and has been much more of a physical presence of late.
"He's really been playing great the last little while," right winger Colby Armstrong said. "He's been physical, he's been fighting and he's been putting up some points. It's tough to lose a guy like that."
Roberts joins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (ankle), forward Maxime Talbot (ankle) and defenseman Mark Eaton (knee) on the Penguins' long-term injured list.
"It's not like you could see it coming, but when Max and Marc were out, some of the guys were saying we might be getting an injury bug," Christensen said. "I think every team goes through that at some point during the year. There's nothing you can do about it."
Left winger Ryan Malone, who had missed the previous five games because of an infected cut on his ankle, returned to the lineup, filling a void created when Petr Sykora was unable to play because of illness. If Sykora is not healthy by Tuesday, the Penguins will have to summon someone from their minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre simply to have enough bodies to dress the normal complement of 20.
Roberts' injury overshadowed another strong performance by goalie Ty Conklin, who has established himself as the de facto No. 1 while winning four consecutive starts. He made 26 saves against Buffalo, for which he played last season, to record his first NHL shutout since Jan. 3, 2006.
In the process, Conklin pretty much guaranteed himself the start when the Penguins face the Sabres at 1:20 p.m. Tuesday at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.
"He's got the hot hand right now," coach Michel Therrien said. "And we're going to ride him."
Although the first period was scoreless, it took only 12 seconds to assure that the second would not be.
Armstrong gave the Penguins the only goal they would need when he went hard to the net and steered in a feed from Sidney Crosby, who had outfought Buffalo's Jochen Hecht for a loose puck in the neutral zone.
"He had his stick on the ice," Crosby said. "And I just tried to hit his stick."
That was the only goal either team got until there were 21.2 seconds left in regulation, when Evgeni Malkin tossed a puck into the net Sabres goalie Ryan Miller had vacated in favor of an extra attacker.
That goal sealed the victory and all but guaranteed Conklin's shutout, for which he went out of his way to share credit with his teammates.
"Anything I didn't see got blocked, and the shots that did get through I did see," he said. "I might have made one or maybe two second saves, and you really can't ask for more than that."
Well, the Penguins could ask to have everyone on their payroll be healthy soon, but that won't happen. Not that it necessarily will doom them to a slide through the standings, though,
"Every time somebody steps in to replace a guy who gets hurt, he's doing well," Laraque said. "Everybody's contributing, and that's awesome. Because right now, we need everybody."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published December 30, 2007 5:15 AM