“The knee is 100 percent ready; it’s not sore or anything. My body is ready, too.”
That was Evgeni Malkin Friday morning, talking about his injured left knee as he prepared to return to the Penguins’ lineup against the Buffalo Sabres. Little did he know that his right knee would be anything but 100 percent by the end of the night, after an awkward collision with Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers left him with a torn MCL and ACL and ended his season.
Pittsburgh has plenty of experience playing without its three elite centers this year. Captain Sidney Crosby’s now missed more than a month due to a concussion and, although he’s been cleared to resume light, off-ice exercises as part of his functional rehab, there’s no timetable for his return. An assortment of injuries, surgeries and infections sidelined Jordan Staal until January 1. And Malkin had missed a total of 10 games since October with the nagging injury to his left knee and now looks to require surgery on his right, with a six-month recovery period.
But the Penguins have found a way to soldier on through the adversity, going 9-1 without Malkin and 8-3-1 without Crosby so far. They’re going to need to keep digging deep for the foreseeable future.
“You’re talking about Evgeni Malkin and the quality of player that he is; he’s a guy who’s won a scoring title and a Conn Smythe,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We were anticipating getting him back in the lineup and healthy … [but] we have dealt with some games without him, and we’ve managed to find our way. That’s what we’re going to have to look at now.”
That challenge will require a total team effort, and Pittsburgh has no shortage of candidates ready to step up. Rookie Dustin Jeffrey opened the scoring for the Penguins Friday and, with six points in his 10 NHL games, may have seen the last of his shuttling back and forth between Pittsburgh and its AHL affiliate. Recent call-up Eric Tangradi is playing with more physicality and confidence.
And the line of Matt Cooke, Staal and Tyler Kennedy continues to come through in a big way. Kennedy scored the Penguins’ second goal Friday and Cooke scored the game-winner off a hardworking backcheck, then a pretty feed, from Staal in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win over Buffalo.
Staal is now the Penguins’ No. 1 center, a role Bylsma said isn’t far off from the one he normally fills, even when the bulk of media attention is focused on Crosby and Malkin.
“We all recognize – and our general manager has been on record saying you win Stanley Cups with this guy – he’s been an important part of our team with the role that he’s played,” Bylsma said. “The importance of the minutes he plays, who he’s playing against, how he plays the game and what he can bring to our team isn’t changing because of the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. If he steps out of a shadow, it’s going to be because you stop writing about [them].”
Staal has been playing big minutes since his return – his 23:32 Friday was just a few seconds shy of defenseman Kris Letang for the team lead – and is now seeing significant time on the power play, in addition to his usual role on the penalty kill.
“He is being a dominant guy down the middle that is hard to play against, he’s good at both ends of the rink, he’s got speed, he’s got size,” Bylsma said. “[Friday], not just on the goal, but there were three other instances where he was tenacious on the puck, winning battles and then turning it back. He’s been front and center and a big part of our team, and being that guy for our team, for a while.”
The luxury of losing two world-class centers and still having another on their active roster is a bright spot for the Penguins, as is their resilience. All three Pittsburgh goals Friday were scored in a span of just over three minutes early in the second period, leapfrogging them past an early 2-0 deficit and coming shortly after Malkin left the ice.
“I think it’s a credit to our team, the way we bounced back and the way that we took over that game,” Jeffrey said. “We started going north, we tightened up defensively, and I think we became a lot more physical the last 10 minutes [of the first] and then into the second period, it carried over.
“We saw what happened to him, and the team took on a mentality that we had to step up again. We were short a forward, so guys were getting more ice time and put in different situations, and I think we did a great job tonight.”
The Penguins are fully aware that players like Crosby and Malkin simply aren’t replaceable, and they’re not looking to try. Instead, each player will be looking to execute his role within the Penguins’ system to the best of his ability.
“Credit goes to the guys in the room. They don’t try to step out of character, they don’t try to become a different team and play a different way, they don’t try to be Malkin or Crosby,” Bylsma said. “It’s relying on playing the right way and playing the offensive zone. Matt Cooke was a force physically, a force on the forecheck, a force in the offensive zone, really created havoc by playing his game. Dustin Jeffrey’s playing within his game, within our team game, to be effective for us.
“That’s the success we’ve had, and that’s been the thing guys have done. They’ve really dug down and played the way we need to play, put teams back on their heels, maybe not with speed or skill but with a physical presence, an offensive presence going to the net, and that was certainly the case [against Buffalo].”