For the past 10 games, everything seemed to be going right for the Penguins. On Friday night, it took just one period for everything to go horribly wrong en route to a 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Pittsburgh came out flat, quickly fell behind 1-0, and ended the period down 2-0. Goaltender Ty Conklin, so sharp in his 11 previous starts, was having an off night. But the worst blow by far came at just 7:37 into the period, when captain Sidney Crosby got tangled up with Lightning defenseman Paul Ranger, went down on his back, then slammed into the boards legs-first (see video below).
Crosby got up under his own power and tried to skate toward the bench, but was unable to put weight on his right leg. He was helped off to the Penguins’ dressing room, still unable to put weight on the leg and cringing in visible pain, and did not return.
“I knew when I saw him leave the ice,” said head coach Michel Therrien. “I got the feeling it was pretty severe.”
The Penguins quickly announced that Crosby had suffered a high ankle sprain and would be further evaluated by doctors on Saturday. High ankle sprains have plagued the team this season, with sparkplug forward Max Talbot and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury suffering identical injuries. Talbot missed 13 games, while Fleury has been sidelined since December 6 and may not return until well into February.
In the likely scenario that Crosby will miss a month or more, it’s bad news for the NHL, which expected to have its leading vote-getter in the starting lineup for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Atlanta. But it’s an even worse scenario for the Penguins, who will have to find a way to continue the stretch run toward the playoffs without their young leader. Crosby has missed only four games in his NHL career so far, and the team is 0-2-2 without him.
“You never want to see it happen, but at the same time it’s something we’ve got to deal with,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “He’s obviously not going to be with us for a little bit, and it’s something we’re just going to have to battle through until he gets back.”
In Crosby’s absence, Therrien had to shake up his lines, and sophomore Evgeni Malkin, who had been playing on Crosby’s wing, found himself back at his natural position of center. Petr Sykora moved up onto the first line, joining Malkin and either Colby Armstrong or Talbot.
Malkin has caught fire of late. After scoring only 11 goals in the first 33 games of the season, he’s scored 12 times in the past 13 games, collecting two hat tricks in a six-game span. The 21-year-old Russian finished Friday’s game with 23:35 of ice time – the most of any Penguin – and figures to be a key player expected to step up with Crosby out of the lineup.
“I’m going to try my best,” said Malkin, through interpreter George Birman. “I’m playing my best every game, but right now I’m going to try to do a little bit more, make sure we’re winning games, and I’m going to try to be a leader of the team.”
The Penguins’ roster features a wealth of other young forwards with scoring potential – such as Erik Christensen, Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, and Ryan Malone – who will need to find a way to pick up their games to compensate for the points generated by Crosby, who is currently tied with Tampa Bay’s Vinny Lecavalier for the league lead in scoring.
“Any time you lose a guy like Sid, the best player in the world, any lineup is going to be affected and certainly ours is no different,” said Conklin. “He’s very important to our team in lots of different aspects, but it’s a chance for everybody to pick up the slack, maybe be in some different situations, and raise the level of their game.”
In this contest, however, the Penguins never quite seemed to recover from the jarring loss of their captain early on. They ended the first period down 16-10 in shots on goal, and although they recovered to outshoot Tampa 10-4 in the second, they couldn’t get anything past goalie Johan Holmqvist. They also couldn’t capitalize on the power play, where they went 0 for 4.
“We were not ready to play tonight, and I didn’t like the way we started the game,” Therrien said. “We lost the game in the first period. We played much better in the second, but it would’ve been nice if we could have scored a power play goal to give us some confidence and get us back in the game.”
“We had a bad first period, but in the second period, we really controlled the play for the most part,” said Orpik. “A couple times we had it in their zone for two or three minutes at a time, but we just couldn’t finish. It was frustrating.”
The Lightning’s goals came from Kyle Wanvig, Chris Gratton and former Penguins tough guy Andre Roy, who also contributed two assists to be named the game’s unlikely first star. The loss brought Pittsburgh’s unbeaten streak to an end at 10 games, during which they went 9-0-1. Conklin also suffered his first loss in regulation, dropping to 10-1-1.
“I felt okay,” Conklin said. “I certainly would’ve liked to have the second goal back, but I think I was much like everybody, not quite as sharp as we would’ve liked to be in the first period, and it ended up costing us.”
The Penguins won’t have much time to reflect on the loss to Tampa, or of their captain. Immediately after the game, they headed to Montreal for a Hockey Night in Canada game on Saturday, then will return home to Mellon Arena on Monday to face the Washington Capitals in their third game in four nights.
“Obviously it’s a huge loss,” Therrien said. “When you end up losing the best player in the league, he’s the heart, he’s the leader. We’re going to be facing adversity, and we’re going to have to battle through.”