The news just keeps getting worse for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Wednesday, the obvious became official as star center Evgeni Malkin was declared done for the season. He’ll have knee surgery Thursday to repair the torn ACL and MCL he sustained in Friday’s collision with big Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. With an expected six-month recovery period, Malkin should be back in time for next season’s training camp.
Winger Matt Cooke will also be out of action for the next four games after hitting Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind Tuesday. Cooke received a five-minute major penalty for charging during the game and was suspended Wednesday after a disciplinary hearing with the NHL. The hit on Tyutin came just two days after Cooke got his skates tangled up with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in what Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau felt was an attempted knee-on-knee hit.
Tuesday also brought the loss of forward Chris Kunitz, a surprise scratch shortly before game time with an unspecified injury. He’s day-to-day, as is forward Arron Asham. Rookie center Mark Letestu is out for four to six weeks after knee surgery.
Then there’s the Internet speculation about Sidney Crosby, sidelined with a concussion since the beginning of January. Crosby, who the Penguins have sent away for a few days to vacation with his parents and get his mind off of hockey, has been cleared for what’s being called functional rehab, including light, off-ice exercises. Tuesday, a reporter from Sportsnet in Canada indicated that Crosby “tried a light workout and immediately saw black dots and stars,” a report immediately denied by those close to the Penguins captain.
The day before that, head coach Dan Bylsma had to refute Internet speculation that Crosby wouldn’t play again this season – certainly a possibility given the unpredictability of post-concussion symptoms, but something that “has not been a topic of conversation or a thought,” Bylsma said.
Still, with where Crosby is in his recovery, the fact that he’s still not symptom-free and the steps he’d need to take before he’s game-ready, it’s unlikely that Pittsburgh would see him back before March at the earliest.
The Penguins, to be sure, are facing challenges.
And, when you consider that Crosby, Malkin, Letestu and Kunitz have netted 75 of Pittsburgh’s 162 goals this season, it’s not entirely surprising that they’ve been challenged for offense in their last two games – a 3-0 shutout Sunday at Washington and 4-1 loss Tuesday to Columbus.
But Bylsma and the players aren’t prepared to use that as an excuse. To a man, they believe that if they continue to play the right way, within their system, they can find success with a makeshift lineup.
“We’ll continue to look for lines and people who are able and willing to get to the offensive zone and play there and get to the front of the net,” Bylsma said. “As far as the mentality for our team in generating offense, I think the players that we have on the ice right now can do a better job of getting the pucks into the blue paint with shots, coming down the wing.
“A couple times tonight, we missed opportunities looking for something better, and the players that are good at something better aren’t in our lineup. So, we need to have a better focus of getting pucks to the net, right through our lineup, doesn’t matter which line it is. Playing in the offensive zone and getting pucks in and to the net, for our players right now, is the best way for us to get offense.”
The players echoed Bylsma’s emphasis on keeping things simple and letting the offense take care of itself.
“We don’t have to sit here and worry about goal scoring; we have to worry about playing the right way. And, if we do that, we give ourselves the best chance to be successful,” said Cooke. “That includes everything from work ethic to battle to playing our system, playing in the areas we need to. We had success tonight cycling the puck; we were getting chances. Just way too many mistakes.”
“There’s obviously a little more [offensive] responsibility, but I’m not going to play any different just because those [guys] are out and I don’t think anybody else should, either,” said Tyler Kennedy, who’s contributed three goals over the last four games. “I think we just try to play our game. Less turnovers at the line, shoot the puck deep and try to get everything on net.”
Strong goaltending and defense would figure to help, too. But, in the absence of so many key players, the responsibility for picking up the slack will fall equally to everyone. They’ll get an opportunity to start righting the ship Thursday, when the Los Angeles Kings pay a rare visit to Pittsburgh.
“It’s up to the individuals in the dressing room; everybody knows their job and we need to do it,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “We just need to regroup.”