Depth allowing to Penguins to collect wins
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One day, perhaps by the time spring flowers replace snowmen, the Penguins again will have a full contingent of healthy centers.
Thursday, they were preparing to welcome back Evgeni Malkin for a home game tonight against Buffalo after a five-game absence because of a sore knee and sinus infection.
At the same time, they were lamenting the loss of Mark Letestu, whose strong rookie season will be derailed for a month-plus because he needs arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a meniscus.
Jordan Staal missed the first 39 games because of foot and hand injuries, and there's no telling when Sidney Crosby will return from a concussion that will force him to miss his 12th game tonight.
Despite the fact that the first two games of the calendar year were the only ones of the Penguins' 52 with all their regular centers in the lineup, the team has not suffered in the standings.
With 70 points, they rank third in the NHL, second in the Eastern Conference.
They are 7-3-1 since Crosby got hurt and were 4-1 without Crosby and Malkin.
Game: Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), http://penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ryan Miller for Sabres.
Penguins: Are 7-5-1 vs. Northeast Division, including 2-0 vs. Buffalo. ... Eight short-handed goals among most in NHL. ... Averaging league-high 16.8 penalty minutes a game.
Sabres: Are 3-7-2 vs. Atlantic Division. ... Have 3-game winning streak on the road. ... Nine short-handed goals allowed among most in NHL.
Of note: Sabres' nine overtime wins among most in NHL.
"I think we're doing the same things we've always done," said winger Tyler Kennedy, who had a goal Wednesday when the Penguins won their fourth game in a row, 3-0, against the New York Islanders.
"Guys are stepping up. Sid and [Malkin] are obviously leaders, but there's more leaders in this room, like Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik. It's nice to see that we have secondary leadership."
Since Crosby left the lineup, the Penguins' offense has been down about half a goal a game, at 2.6. That's not surprising, considering Crosby led the NHL in scoring with 66 points in 41 games.
But over those 11 games, the Penguins have played good defense and gotten good goaltending, holding opponents to two goals a game with two shutouts. Their power play has connected 22.2 percent of the time, better than their season rate of 18.1 percent. And their penalty-killing, which leads the NHL at 88.6 percent overall, has been successful 93.8 percent of the time.
"When you have two top guys out of the lineup that give you the production every night, you've got to keep it simple," defenseman Paul Martin said. "I think that's why we're having success -- everyone's elevating their game a little bit within the system. No one's trying to do too much, but everyone's doing a good job and coming up big when they need to."
There is some danger that the Penguins will relax a bit when players the caliber of Malkin or Crosby return.
"There's lots of scenarios that you think about in these situations and, yes, I have thought about that one," coach Dan Bylsma said. "When you have an exceptional player like Malkin coming back into the lineup, or when we got Staal back, and down the road [Crosby], we still need to play the right way and do the right things. We don't just hand it over to a good player to get a win."
Malkin, who also has played right wing this season and has 37 points in 42 games, said it wasn't that frustrating sitting out, then working himself back into game shape, because the team was doing so well. He hopes to augment, not alter, things.
"We don't want to change because it's working," he said. "Just play our game. I hope we're ready to play and Sid comes back pretty soon and we can continue to play the same game. Before the playoffs, we need to be 100 percent."
As one of the top teams despite the injuries, the Penguins would not seem to have a ceiling if they can get their top players on the ice at the same time.
"We want to be a great team," Kennedy said. "It starts with [Malkin and Crosby] coming back."
Crosby, Bylsma said, is leaving for a few days to visit his family, but he will continue what the coach called "his functional rehab and light exercises."
There is no timetable for Crosby's return, but it doesn't appear it will be in the short term.
Letestu has helped fill a couple of considerable gaps with a strong first full season, playing at times for Staal on the third line, for Crosby on the top line and on the power play. He has 10 goals, 20 points in 50 games and has won 54 percent of his faceoffs.
His injury, which happened during the Penguins' morning skate Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York, was freakish, perhaps a skate caught in a rut. He missed two games while being diagnosed.
Letestu ought to be back for the late stages of the regular season. Perhaps his return will complete a healthy lineup.
"We want those guys back as soon as possible, but it just goes to show the depth we have and what the players that are playing right now can do," Staal said. "It's nice to see, and, hopefully, it can continue."
First Published February 4, 2011 12:00 am