Remarkable, resilient Penguins set for playoffs
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When the Penguins face off tonight for their Stanley Cup playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, they will begin their bid to win a championship despite being without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the National Hockey League's elite scorers.
Which would be akin to asking those classic Steelers to win a Super Bowl without Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene.
Or the Pirates of that era to win a World Series without Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
Or the Penguins of the 1990s to take the Cup without Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
It borders on the unthinkable.
Except for this: These Penguins, somehow, some way, are still skating sky-high.
They finished the regular season at 49-25-8, the NHL's second-highest victory total and the second-best record in franchise history. After Crosby sustained a concussion with two hits to the head Jan. 1 and 5, they went 23-13-5. After Malkin was lost to a right knee injury Feb. 4 and both stars were out, they went 15-10-4, including a 13-4-2 tear carrying into this postseason.
"If you look at all the things we had to endure, it's a pretty good job," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "You're never going to replace the guys we lost, but we kept going."
That is to say nothing of missing several other players for extended stretches: Orpik had a broken hand. Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey, the centers tabbed to replace Crosby and Malkin, went down. So did wingers Chris Kunitz and Arron Asham. One night against the Los Angeles Kings, the Penguins had to recall four players from their minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre just to fill the roster. In all, 350 man-games were lost to injury, more than double Tampa Bay's 172.
Players were out of position, out of their usual roles, and the only constants were the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury, the relentless work ethic and, yes, the winning.
How have they done it?
Crosby still ended up the Penguins' leading scorer with 66 points, and next on the list was defenseman Kris Letang, whose 50 points tied for 91st in the NHL. Clearly, the offense had to come from other sources, and it did, notably from forwards Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis.
The defense remained tight, too: The penalty-killing finished No. 1 in the league, and Fleury's 2.32 goals-against average, ninth in the NHL, has him in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender.
Perhaps most emblematic in the intangible sense was the performance of Mike Rupp, a grinding left winger who spent most of the season's first half averaging just seven or eight minutes a game on the fourth line. Rupp not only would get promoted to the first line but also switch to center for the first time since college, work on the first-unit power play, and more than double his ice time.
This past Friday in New York, he was the Penguins' best player with a goal and assist in the 4-3 victory against the Islanders.
"Honestly, there was a bit of a chip on our shoulders back when our big guys got hurt," Rupp said. "The hockey media across North America questioned us. When you read or hear that we're 'hanging on' until those guys come back, you take that personally. I mean, we're obviously a better team with Sidney and Evgeni in the lineup. But we're also a good team without those guys."
He thumped his thumb on his chest.
"I deserve to be here. I deserve to be in the NHL. So does every guy on this team. We've done our work. This was our opportunity to show that we're still the Pittsburgh Penguins. I didn't want to wait for help. I wanted to get it done."
That might suggest there was a scene in which a player or two stood up in the locker room at some point and delivered a Mark Messier-style, go-get-'em-boys speech. But nothing like that occurred, according to those on the inside.
"Honestly, I don't think we ever talked about Sid or Geno being hurt in here," left winger Max Talbot said. "And I believe that's why we've been successful. I've been here six years, and I've seen that we've created something. We know what to do when things are tough. We know how to react. We didn't stop and say, 'Aw, what are we going to do without Sid and Geno?' "
Talbot did acknowledge that the team found some strength in a couple of crisp practices in early February, as well as an especially taxing but rewarding 3-2 victory March 5 in Boston that ended the Bruins' seven-game winning streak.
"But even there, it wasn't anything that was spoken," Talbot said. "It was more where I would feel like ... you know, everything we were doing had a purpose. Everything was so sharp, so consistent."
Several players credited those at the top, from team owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle to general manager Ray Shero to coach Dan Bylsma and his staff. Again, none cited any singular speech or moment, but all sounded eminently aware of management's displeasure at the team winning just three times in a 14-game span in February.
Those games were competitive, and some in the public saw the effort as valiant but, as Bylsma said at the time, "We still have NHL players. We expect to win."
"On the ice, the guys who have been here and won the Cup a couple years ago set the pace," Letestu said. "But what we have here, what the Penguins have, that starts with Mario and Ray and goes down to the coaching staff. We see how hard they work. The fact is, success breeds success."
Shero made two trades in late February to acquire wingers Alexei Kovalev and James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen. Those wingers would combine for just three goals but were proficient in shootouts and, in general, kept the offense from looking overmatched, as had been the case in the first few games without Crosby and Malkin.
Maybe the most important effect of those trades was the message sent by management that the Penguins would not be simply shutting down until next year.
That message alone, according to front-office sources, was important enough to Lemieux and Burkle that they authorized spending above the NHL's salary cap of $59.4 million to acquire Kovalev and the prorated portion of his $5 million salary. The Penguins could spend above the cap because Malkin's season-ending injury meant his $8.7 million salary no longer counted against the cap. But the team still has to pay all wages.
"This is real money," Shero said. "Our ownership was willing to do that, which is great for us and a commitment to our fans."
Bylsma's greatest contribution was sticking by the puck-pursuit system the team has employed in all of his three seasons. That was met with some skepticism by those who felt the Penguins would be better off going defense-first. But there was enough faith in the remaining forwards and mobile defense to keep attacking.
"Having 49 wins and 106 points, it underscores what our team has been able to do, especially with the adversity and injury situation," Bylsma said. "It's undeniable that we've won hockey games a lot of different ways, and it says a lot about the guys in that room."
"Nothing changed about the way we play, and I think that was huge," Rupp said. "Just think if the coaches had come in and said, 'OK, we're missing these guys, and we have to tweak things because we aren't going to be scoring goals anymore.' Nothing like that was ever said. They believed in the character of the guys in here, the depth we had in the minors."
"I think because we stayed with what we do, we all became a little stronger," Letestu said. "Now, if we have deep playoff run and could add piece like Sid ... it would be amazing."
Crosby continues to practice with the Penguins, but he still was not permitted any contact in the session Tuesday at Southpointe. No timetable has been set for his return, and the team has not ruled out that he will miss the entire playoffs.
Still, some players cited their captain's mere presence in recent weeks as inspirational.
"There aren't words for how hard this has been for Sid," Talbot said. "But you don't ever see him walk into the locker room or the gym with his head down. I know there have been times when it was hard to do that. But he never let anyone see it. He's a single guy, young, far from his family, and his whole life is at the rink. This is someone who stays mad all day if he misses a couple passes in practice."
Talbot motioned to Crosby's empty stall.
"That's his level of focus, and that's where we get ours. We're still Sid's team."
Through the years, there have been many great duos to win a Stanley Cup: Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Jean Beliveau in Montreal. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in Boston. Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy with the Islanders. Wayne Gretzky and Messier in Edmonton. Lemieux and Jagr here. Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov in Detroit. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in Colorado. Crosby and Malkin just a couple years ago.
Tampa Bay has had its championship duo, too, in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and they will skate together again tonight. The Lightning also have one of the game's bright young talents in 45-goal sniper Steven Stamkos.
Almost all their players are healthy, too.
The new Consol Energy Center will experience its first playoff game, and the white-clad 18,087 partisans surely will make for a deafening din as the home team is introduced over the loudspeaker. Even with the stars' names never being mentioned.
"This group has done a lot of good things already," Rupp said. "And we plan on doing more."
First Published April 12, 2011 10:47 pm