Crosby, Malkin sorely missed by Penguins
Forward James Neal sits alone in the Penguins locker room after losing Game 7 at Consol Energy Center Wednesday.
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When they talk about this Penguins season, a first-round loss in the playoffs, in years to come, it will no doubt be framed -- if not heavily defined -- by the extended absence of their top three centers, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Staal missed the first half of the season and was considered a pivotal player if the Penguins were going to get past Tampa Bay in their first-round series, but neither he nor anyone else on the club was able to make up for the fact that Crosby and Malkin were spectators.
"We had a gap with those two guys out offensively," Staal said Wednesday night after the Penguins fell to the Lightning, 1-0, in Game 7 of the series.
"They're game-breakers. They find ways to get momentum and score big goals. We had our opportunities to bury this team, and we didn't take advantage of it. We had opportunities to win this series. We missed those guys, but no excuses -- we still had the series [nearly won]."
The Penguins built a 3-1 series lead before losing three games in a row. They managed just four goals over those three games, 14 goals in the seven games. Only one of those goals came on the power play, in 35 chances.
Crosby has 30 goals and 52 assists in 62 playoff games; Malkin has 29 goals and 44 assists in 62 playoff games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. That output is a mountain of offense in the tightly played postseason.
"It's tough having two of the best players out, but the guys battled hard all year," said winger Arron Asham, who stepped up with three goals, four points in the series.
"It just wasn't meant to be, I guess."
Staal missed the first 39 games because of a stubborn foot infection and a broken right hand that he got about 48 hours before he was set to join the lineup and which required surgery.
He made his season debut in the Jan. 1 outdoor Winter Classic, but was in the lineup with Crosby and Malkin for just two games.
Crosby was leading the NHL with 66 points in 41 games and was on pace for his second scoring title and best season.
He got clipped in the head by Washington's David Steckel during the Winter Classic, then hit from behind into boards by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman four nights later. He was diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6 and didn't return to the lineup.
Malkin was struggling some offensively, with 15 goals and 22 assists in 43 games, when he took a clean but awkward hit from Buffalo's Tyler Myers in the corner boards during a Feb. 4 game. He had surgery Feb. 10 for a torn anterior crucial ligament in his right knee and faced rehabilitation for a torn medial collateral ligament in the same knee.
The Penguins still finished with 106 points, second-most in franchise history, and with emotion still raw, coach Dan Bylsma wanted that to be the 2010-11 team's hallmark.
"It certainly happened," he said of the major injuries, "but I think that would be a significant error in the history books to talk about this year in that regard.
"This team, and the way they worked and the way they played all year and continued to find a way to be successful, given the situation we were in right from the start -- that's what I think this year is about. That's what this team showed and proved all year long."
Still, the loss of Crosby and Malkin stung.
"Those two guys, they're big parts of this team. Same with [Matt Cooke, who was suspended for the first round]," Asham said. "We had a lot of guys out. The guys battled hard. They did that all year.
"It's not the outcome we wanted. It makes for a long summer."
When the 2011-12 season opens, Staal will be 23, Crosby 24 and Malkin 25, and all could be healthy. Things could be different come next April, and maybe May and June.
"That's the plan," Staal said. "We want to keep moving forward as an organization, but we can't let these years keep slipping away."
First Published April 28, 2011 1:52 am