Cook: With or without Sid, Penguins have a shot at Cup

Behind Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins should make plenty of noise in the postseason; If Sidney Crosby returns, they will be a favorite to win the Stanley Cup


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Since the Penguins' six-game losing streak ended in mid-January, the team is on a 15-4-1 roll. It went 9-3 against opponents with a winning record during that stretch. It beat the Eastern Conference's best -- the New York Rangers -- in consecutive games, one here, one there. It won Feb. 18 at Philadelphia. It won Feb. 4 at Boston. It won Jan. 24 at St. Louis.

"I'm comfortable with this team moving forward," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Monday.

"I know our team can win," star center Evgeni Malkin said.

"I like our team," coach Dan Bylsma said.

Can we all agree?

The Penguins are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender without concussed Sidney Crosby and will be the overwhelming favorite if Crosby returns.

The NHL trade deadline passed Monday with Shero making no moves. That's a good thing. There were no Marian Hossas or Bill Guerins or James Neals available for the Penguins to get, at least not at a reasonable price. It would have been a shame to see Shero risk terrific chemistry in the team's room merely for the sake of making some kind of change. It should inspire the boys knowing that their boss believes in them. "More than anything, it's an endorsement of what we have," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

Shero did his heavy lifting shortly before the trade deadline last season when he acquired winger Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen in what he called "a good hockey trade -- now and for the future." Neal has become a star -- a 30-goal man -- and Niskanen might be the team's most improved player. Shero also made a strong move by signing free agent winger Steve Sullivan in the offseason. Sullivan, who had a reputation of being fragile, has played in all 62 games this season, solidified what was a weak power play and is playing his best hockey with a goal and seven assists in the past five games.

Clearly, the Penguins were built to go for the Cup before the season. The problem has been injuries. It's believed they lead the NHL with 296 man-games lost, the biggest number coming because Crosby has been able to play in just eight of the 62 games.

But the Penguins, finally, are healthy with the notable exception of Crosby. Their top seven defensemen have been virtually intact since Kris Letang -- a Norris Trophy candidate in the making -- returned Jan. 19 after missing 21 games because of a concussion. Center Jordan Staal has played the past eight games after missing 15 with a knee injury and has given the team a big lift with six goals and four assists. It's nice to think winger Tyler Kennedy, who missed the past nine games with a high ankle sprain, will return sooner rather than later.

Getting Crosby back and keeping him in the lineup would make the Penguins hard to beat. Although there's a feeling around the team that he will play again this season -- Shero might have been more tempted to make a move Monday if he believed otherwise -- the players are prepared to compete for the Cup without him. That is the only approach they can take. It certainly doesn't hurt their confidence that they are 31-19-4 without him this season.

The Penguins still have the best player in the world in Malkin and one of the best goaltenders in Marc-Andre Fleury. Their health -- "Knock on wood," Shero said Monday -- is why the team was in fourth place in the Eastern Conference going into the games Monday night. Malkin has played in 52 consecutive games after missing seven of the first 10 because of a lingering knee problem. Fleury hasn't missed a start because of injury and has shown no signs of wearing down despite playing in 52 of the 62 games.

Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009. He's playing at an even higher level now. Fleury was huge in that Cup run. He, too, has raised his game. The two are capable of carrying the team a long way.

Go back one week to a 2-0 win against the Rangers at Consol Energy Center. Malkin scored their first goal and Fleury stopped 27 shots for the shutout. It was a remarkable follow to their 4-1 win Jan. 19 at Madison Square Garden when Malkin had two goals and Fleury stopped 30 of 31 shots.

After the game last week, Bylsma talked about the importance of "making a statement" -- shift by shift, period by period. The Penguins did just that. It was their strongest game of the season in every way.

Bylsma, who also showed in the '09 playoffs that the biggest stage and brightest lights aren't too much for him, wasn't clear about to whom the "statement" was directed. The guess here is it was heard loudly and clearly by many people in many cities around the NHL. The Rangers, for sure. The other top teams in the league. Heck, the Penguins themselves ...

Maybe the Penguins most of all.

Everyone knows there are no guarantees in the two-month grind to the Cup. Parity in the NHL is why so few trades were made Monday, Shero said. It's also why the Penguins could lose in the first round of the playoffs.

Hey, it happens.

But if it does this season, I'll be surprised. I won't be surprised if the Penguins win it all.

That's with Crosby, certainly. But it's also without him.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published February 28, 2012 5:00 AM


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