Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins rebounded from consecutive losses to Eastern Conference powerhouses Boston and Philadelphia, coming from behind to beat the New York Islanders 6-3.
Tuesday, as Pittsburgh prepares to face its two-time Stanley Cup rival, the Detroit Red Wings, the team is coming from behind even before the puck drops. The Penguins will face a Wings lineup stacked with talent – including Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nick Lidstrom – not only without their top offensive defenseman, Kris Letang, and one of their top defensive defensemen, Zbynek Michalek, but minus a growing list of sidelined forwards.
Captain Sidney Crosby, who sat out last week’s trip to Philadelphia and Long Island, said Monday that he is experiencing symptoms of the concussion that sidelined him for 10-plus months and there is no timetable for his return. Crosby sustained a high level of physical contact during his eight games back in the lineup, including what looked to be a knee-on-knee collision with teammate Chris Kunitz last Monday versus Boston.
Crosby said he has passed an ImPACT concussion test, but “just didn’t feel right. After talking with everyone, I figured it was better to be cautious and not take any chances. I’ve been doing light exertion stuff … it’s that whole routine [of recovery steps] again but, hopefully, not as long. I have to make sure with these sorts of things that I’m careful and making sure I’m 100 percent before coming back.”
The Penguins were also down another center Saturday in Long Island, as Jordan Staal was unexpectedly out with a lower-body injury. Staal participated in the Penguins’ game-day skate Tuesday, but pronounced himself a game-time decision.
“It felt good, but I want to see how it feels once I’m out of the skates and off the ice for a bit, if it starts to flare up at all,” Staal said. “It’s tough with that many guys out, but [we’re] still a great team. We played a great game last game, so there’s definitely no reason why I should force myself in the lineup.”
In Crosby and Staal’s absence, the Penguins would look to the line of Steve Sullivan, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal to step up and provide offense – but Malkin missed Tuesday’s game-day skate for unspecified reasons. Head coach Dan Bylsma said he is also a game-time decision, giving the Penguins the possibility of missing all three of their top centers simultaneously. Center Richard Park is also out for four-to-six weeks, having suffered a foot fracture on a penalty kill in Carolina earlier this month.
“I can’t really tell you exactly what the lineup’s going to look like, so there’s been some challenges there,” Bylsma said. “[Winger] Pascal Dupuis is going to be part of the big three; he’ll most likely be playing center again, probably keeping him with [Matt] Cooke and [Tyler] Kennedy to add some stability there, some defensive play, and then we’ll see how the rest of it plays out come game-time. It’s obviously going to be difficult if Staal and Malkin don’t play and our No. 1 center is Joe Vitale or Pascal Dupuis.”
The Penguins have the luxury of depth in their system, and have recalled veteran forward Jason Williams from Wilkes-Barre Scranton. They’ve also recently recalled defensemen Simon Despres, Alexandre Picard and Robert Bortuzzo – the last of whom also suffered a concussion and joined fellow blueliners Letang, Michalek, Ben Lovejoy and Brian Strait on the injury list.
If there’s a silver lining for the Penguins, it’s that the past two seasons have made them plenty familiar with facing this situation.
“It’s been frustrating,” Staal said. “It’s been quite a few injuries throughout the past couple years, and it hasn’t gotten much better. But, hopefully, we’re getting them out of the way now.”
And, to a man, Pittsburgh continues to have faith that playing its system – regardless of the individual players executing it – will result in success.
“We’ve got to push the pace,” Sullivan said. “For us to be successful, we have to play within our system and not worry about what the Detroit Red Wings, or any team for that matter, are doing. It’s all about what we do. If we play the way we’re supposed to play, we’ll have success.”
“We’ve got guys stepping up, night in and night out,” Neal said, following the win over the Islanders. “Just a great response from our team; a great team effort.”