Since the beginning of December, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been dealt their fare share of adversity. Despite injuries to key elements of their lineup, they managed to overcome the struggles and put together a 16-6-1 record since December 1st. They put together this impressive run despite losing their #1 goaltender, their #1 veteran, their #2 defenseman, and a number of other key members of the lineup. Now they face a defining moment in their season as their leader, Captain, and arguably the best player in the league will be sidelined for an undetermined period of time with a high ankle sprain. How do you compensate for the loss of a player like Sidney Crosby, especially with other key players still out of the lineup? That is the challenge that the Penguins face going forward.
It all started in early December with the loss of #1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Despite a lackluster start at the beginning of the season, Fleury was hitting his stride on December 7th when he fell akwardly with his leg underneath him in a game against the Calgary Flames. At the time of the injury, he was coming off from 4-straight wins, giving up just 4-goals in that timespan. The injury was a high ankle sprain, and the prognosis was 4-6 weeks. It has now been 6-weeks and his return is still unknown as his rehabilitation has been slower than projected. He has yet to be able to move vertically in the crease without difficulty. For many, Fleury’s injury was viewed as a death knell for the Penguins season, as there was little faith in their depth in net. However, Dany Sabourin and Ty Conklin took it as an opportunity to prove their worth and they both overcame the adversity to push the Penguins to a 1st-place tie in the highly competitive Atlantic Division.
Then on December 8th against Vancouver, Max Talbot left the ice after aggravating his own high ankle sprain that he incurred in mid-November. Although not a top-line forward, Talbot was off to a career best season and was the Penguins leading goal scorer in the early season. Talbot was out for a month, returning to action on the 10th of January.
On December 23rd against the Boston Bruins, the Penguins lost one of their best defensemen when Mark Eaton left the ice with a torn ACL. The news got worse when the team learned that he would have season-ending surgery to repair the injury.
A few days later, on December 29th against Buffalo, the Penguins lost their veteran leader Gary Roberts to a broken leg. The Penguins hope to get him back before the end of the season, but no timeline has been set for his return.
Sidney Crosby’s injury was on the 18th of January against Tampa Bay, a game which the Penguins lost 3-0. It was their first regulation loss in 11-games. Despite the shutout loss and losing Crosby, the team came back the next night to not only beat Montreal, but to shut them out 2-0. Unfortunately, the Penguins suffered another loss early in that game when Colby Armstrong went hard into the boards and left the game with a bruised hip. The team has also lost forward Adam Hall with a groin pull that will sideline him at least a week.
Add to all of the injuries a flu-like illness that has been working its way through the roster and sidelining players like Tyler Kennedy and Erik Christensen, and the level of adversity the team has struggled through has been pretty remarkable.
Despite it all, the loss of Sidney Crosby will be the biggest hurdle the team has faced. Crosby leads the team in points, assists, plus/minus and, perhaps most of all, determination. With Crosby gone, the team will need to find offense from other places within the lineup. Evgeni Malkin has stated that he wants to lead the team, and will likely be able to do so as well as anyone else on the ice for the Penguins. He was a tour de force in the game against Montreal, but will be unable to do it alone. Aside from the offensive leadership and contributions that Crosby provided on-ice, his leadership off the ice will also be missed. It is unfortunate that veteran Gary Roberts is also out of the lineup. It seems clear that Sergei Gonchar is a likely candidate to step up into that leadership role with Roberts and Crosby both out.
The Penguins have called up some players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to help fill some of the holes in the lineup and to try and provide some depth to the roster. On Saturday, Ray Shero announced the recall of forwards Chris Minard, Tim Brent and Jonathan Filewich from the American Hockey League affiliate. Minard has 31-points (17G, 14A) in 39 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Brent leads Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 35-points (7G, 28A) in 39 games. Filewich has 17-points (7G, 10A) in 37 games.
Only time will tell if the Penguins can overcome the current adversity it faces. The schedule is not going to be forgiving with some key divisional games coming up in the next 30-days. With the Flyers, Devils and Penguins caught in a 3-way tie for the Atlantic Division lead, there is no room for mediocrity. If they can find ways to win and keep themselves in the playoff hunt, the Penguins will be a team to be reckoned with come April. If any team can do it, it is this Penguins team.
Go Pens Go!