DETROIT — The Penguins have a 10-point lead over second-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division.
Heck, if they keep accumulating points the way they have lately — their 4-1 victory against Detroit Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena raised their record in the past nine games to 8-1 — the Penguins just might lock up the division title by the first of the new year.
And considering the way they’ve been losing players in recent weeks, they might have to before they run out of bodies.
The latest candidate for injured-reserve is center Evgeni Malkin, who had three points in the first two periods before being helped to the dressing room at 2:19 of the third.
He broke up a short-handed two-on-one rush by Detroit, but slammed skates-first into the boards behind the Penguins net. Malkin stayed on the ice for a couple of minutes and did not put any weight on his left foot while going to the locker room.
There was no immediate word on the precise nature or severity of his injury and Malkin was seen walking into the training room — slowly, but with no apparent difficulty — after the game.
Coach Dan Bylsma said he will be further examined, and declined to speculate on whether Malkin could be out for a significant period.
The Penguins entered the weekend with no fewer than seven players unavailable because of injuries and an eighth, winger James Neal, who can’t play because of a suspension.
A lot of teams would consider that a crisis.
The Penguins (23-10-1) probably think of it as the Good Old Days.
Even before Malkin was hurt, Kris Letang sat out the game with an unspecified injury.
As with Malkin, Bylsma said Letang will undergo further examination today and he doesn’t know if he will be out for an extended period.
With Letang out of the mix, the Penguins had to take on Detroit without any of their top four defensemen. The others are Brooks Orpik (concussion), Paul Martin (broken tibia) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle).
They might lose another one soon, as well, because Deryk Engelland received a match penalty and automatic game misconduct for hitting Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader in the head with his shoulder at 19:30 of the opening period.
“I tried to finish my check,” Engelland said. “I’m obviously not trying to hit him in the head or anything like that. I think I catch his chin a little bit before his body. Hopefully he’s all right.”
Abdelkader was dazed by the blow and had to be helped to the Red Wings dressing room.
The incident surely will be reviewed by the league and a suspension seems likely.
“Whatever they do, I have to deal with it,” said Engelland, who will have an in-person hearing Wednesday with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
The Red Wings, it should be noted, had a rather diluted lineup, as well. Even before losing Abdelkader, they were missing forwards Henrik Zetterberg (back), Darren Helm (shoulder) and Stephen Weiss (groin), defenseman Danny DeKeyser (shoulder) and goalie Jimmy Howard (knee).
The Penguins, though, didn’t seem terribly interested in the names on the backs of the Detroit sweaters.
“They’re still a pretty good team, a team that plays well under [coach Mike] Babcock,” winger Pascal Dupuis said. “They’re going to be good as long as they’re in the league, I think.”
The Penguins have been pretty good, too. Including guys who aren’t household names beyond the confines of their backyards.
Such as rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff, a Detroit native, who stopped 28 of 29 shots.
“To come in here and play the Wings was nice,” he said. “And to get a win.”
He wasn’t the only first-year player to make a contribution. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who was pressed into service when Letang couldn’t play, responded with 18 minutes, 10 seconds of solid work.
Although Detroit finished with a 29-25 edge in shots, the Penguins had a lopsided advantage in special-teams play.
They scored on two of four chances with the extra man, and snuffed all five of Detroit’s power plays. One of those, stemming from the Engelland penalty, lasted five minutes.
“I think [special-teams work] was the difference in the game,” center Sidney Crosby said.
The Penguins’ ability to again plug the personnel holes that arose was a huge factor, too.
“We stuck with it and found ways,” Crosby said. “But we’re not making it easy on ourselves, that’s for sure.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published December 14, 2013 9:38 PM