For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the last three games raised an ugly question – can the team succeed without Sid?
Captain Sidney Crosby has been sidelined with a mild concussion since January 6, when, in his absence, the Pens lost to the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout. Two heartbreaking losses followed; 4-0 against the Minnesota Wild and 4-2 versus the Boston Bruins (where they blew a two-goal lead late in the game).
Sure, it was early to be alarmed, but no fans want to believe that their team’s success rides solely on the shoulders of its star player and if the losses kept coming, fear could have become fact.
Last night, however, this fear was crushed.
The Pens returned to Montreal and earned a 5-2 win over the Habs. They have clearly found the keys to Sid-less victory.
The power play ruled this game. Four of the Pens’ five goals were scored on the advantage, even though the Habs have the number one penalty kill in the NHL. The winning PP combination consisted of forwards Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz, with defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski.
“There are not a lot of secrets to the power play,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “For a majority of the time we got the puck to the net with people there. We got net-front presence.”
In perfect complement, Pittsburgh – the league’s number two penalty killer – did not allow any power play goals.
Staal, a strong presence on the penalty kill, was also an important part of the power play, with two assists and one goal on the PP unit.
“It was nice to get out there,” he told the press about his time on the power play. “With Sid out of the lineup, I got the opportunity to get out there and try to do my best. The puck moved around really nice today and hopefully I can keep going out there.”
The goal was Staal’s first this season, as last night was only his fifth game back on the ice.
“It’s been five games but it’s also been eight months since I got (a goal),” he said. “It was a very nice feeling and hopefully I keep doing it.”
Goligoski also had a big night, with two goals and an assist. He has been on fire lately, with eight points in the last five games. Letang logged three assists. The Pens’ current defensive squad has contributed significantly this season, totaling 109 points, 26 of which are from Goligoski and a staggering 40 of which are from Letang.
Additional goals were scored by Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy. While Kunitz continued to be effective in front of the opposition’s net, Kennedy has finally begun to shine. Although it does not show in numbers, the ever hard-working Kennedy is a more noticeable presence than he has been all year, likely because he is reunited with last year’s line mates Staal and Matt Cooke. This line was a favorite last season and with Staal’s return, their chemistry is well on its way back.
Center Mark Letestu and winger Chris Conner are two players who, like Kennedy, are not showing up as much on the score sheet as they are in other ways that count just as much. The energy these two have brought to their shifts – whether sharing a line, as they often do, or separated, as they were tonight – is unmistakable. Without Crosby, the opposition’s defensive strength can be spread out a little more, but when players like Kennedy, Letestu and Conner are constantly moving and getting involved, it makes it harder to channel as much defense onto Staal and Malkin.
Malkin is the one the Pens turn to for points when Crosby is out of commission, but unfortunately, he has not been delivering to his full potential. He only has 35 points this season, and just one in this time without Crosby. He was held scoreless last night despite leading the team in shots with seven. It is not that he is failing to place offensive pressure on the other team; his struggle seems to be in capitalizing on chances and putting pucks in the net.
“Malkin doesn’t get a lot of reward tonight but he’s around the cage all night long,” said Bylsma. “He’s at the net. He created a lot. He played a great game, but we still have a lot of good parts to our team and we saw that with guys showing up on the score sheet tonight.”
If the Penguins can continue to succeed so broadly across their lineup, fan can rest assured that Crosby is not the make-or-break element but rather, the icing on the cake.