The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have much of a chance to remember how it felt to ice a nearly complete, healthy lineup.
Two of the team’s top four defensemen, Kris Letang and Zbynek Michalek, sustained concussions November 27 in Montreal and are out indefinitely. Fellow blueliner Deryk Engelland suffered a lower-body injury last weekend in Carolina and is day-to-day. In their places are 26-year-old Alexandre Picard, 22-year-old Robert Bortuzzo and highly-touted 20-year old Simon Despres.
Pittsburgh’s forwards, meanwhile, so hard-hit by injury last season, seemed to escape the bug, save for veteran Richard Park, who’s nursing a day-to-day, lower-body injury. That is, until they met the Boston Bruins Monday in a highly physical, 3-1 loss.
Star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both leveled in the contest – Malkin in a face-to-face collision with Bruins forward Daniel Paille, who was wearing a full face cage, and Crosby by his own teammate, Chris Kunitz, in a high-speed, neutral-zone collision that seemed to injure the Penguins captain’s right knee as he got up slowly and limped to the bench.
“I don’t know what I hit my knee on, whether it was his leg,” Crosby said after the game. “It was a bit of a stinger, but nothing major.”
Crosby and Malkin both finished the game. After Wednesday’s practice, however – in which Crosby participated and pronounced himself as “feeling good” afterward – Pittsburgh announced he would not join the team on its two-game trip to Philadelphia and Long Island in what was called a purely precautionary measure.
“Sidney took a hard hit during our game against Boston Monday night and wasn’t feeling 100 percent,” said GM Ray Shero. “He saw [concussion specialist] Dr. Micky Collins of UPMC today and took an ImPACT test, which showed no problems. However, we all think it’s best that he sits out the next two games as a precaution.”
Crosby has 12 points in eight games since he returned from a 10-plus month layoff due to concussion symptoms.
The Penguins would miss their captain’s presence in the lineup under any circumstance, but they’ll miss him even more against two opponents on which he’s feasted over the years. In 36 career games against the Flyers, Crosby has racked up 62 points (26G, 36A), while his 34 games against the Islanders have been good for 66 points (20G, 46A).
Thursday’s contest in Philadelphia figures to see an extra element added to the always-heated rivalry, with former Penguins Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr signing with the Flyers last summer. Talbot, a career Penguin until moving cross-state, may be able to use his familiarity with Pittsburgh’s system to help his new team.
“Obviously he knows more about [our] players,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “I think he’s killed penalties against Evgeni Malkin in practice an awful lot, so he’s going to have an understanding of some tendencies and some ideas of what we are trying to do.”
“I expect him to be hard to play against; I think that’s his job on their team,” Crosby said. “That’s what he did here; he tried to provide energy and be hard to play against, so I would expect him to do the same things. We definitely had some good times here and keep in touch but, on the ice, you’ve still got the play the same way. He’s on the Flyers now and he’s an opponent, so that’s the way things are. We’re all playing to win.”
Jagr, meanwhile, hasn’t played for the Penguins since 2001, but left many Penguins fans with hard feelings after he appeared to spurn the team this summer in favor of a bigger contract with their fiercest rival.
“We were having meetings at the end of [last] season, and I think we read that there was a comment in a newspaper about Jagr possibly [returning from Russia’s KHL and] playing in the NHL and with the Penguins,” Bylsma said.”We tried to validate that source and those comments from him right then and there. It was a summer-long discussion. We made an offer and it turns out that the sources for the information in that article weren’t necessarily true or accurate.”
A tough, competitive game is always a certainty when the Penguins and Flyers meet. It’s also a given that both team’s rosters will be ready to compete – even with Pittsburgh’s missing some of its most important players.
“I think we always know it’s going to be a tough game, and both teams bring out the best in each other,” Crosby said. “Sometimes it works out that you end up being a little more focused or more ready for those ones.”