PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Once the Pittsburgh Penguins realized Sidney Crosby's concussion layoff would be an extended one, no doubt they began to worry about where they might finish in the Eastern Conference race.
With less than two weeks remaining in the season, and with a 42-23-8 record, how's this for a possibility: First place.
Their two-and-a-half months without hockey's best player have been troubling at times, controversial at others for the Penguins—and, too, unexpectedly revealing.
The 2009 Stanley Cup champions are learning they have a better team than even they might have expected not just without Crosby, but also with former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since Feb. 4 with a right knee injury and won't play again until next season.
A team that could be very, very good should Crosby return at some point in the playoffs—perhaps even the Stanley Cup prime contender the Penguins figured to be before Crosby sustained a concussion on Jan. 5.
Taking away Crosby and Malkin from the Penguins might be the modern-day equivalent of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers losing Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri at the same time yet, somehow, Pittsburgh goes into Thursday's night key conference matchup in Philadelphia only five points behind the first-place Flyers.
"It's been pretty amazing to see the amount of character we have," Crosby said. "I think with all the adversity we've had, the guys have really done an unbelievable job of just focusing on what they have to do out there."
What the Penguins have done is play the kind of game they've never been known for playing–not since Crosby arrived in 2005, not since Mario Lemieux debuted in 1984, perhaps not since the franchise was founded in 1967.
They are only 24th in goals per game (2.34) since Crosby absorbed two hard hits in successive games Jan. 1-5. Yet they are 16-11-4 since then—not exactly the kind of record that wins a Presidents' Trophy, but one that likely is better than almost anyone around the league anticipated.
Their penalty kill, once one of the NHL's worst, now is the league's third best. And a franchise that once didn't care if it won 7-6 every night as long as it won is a more-than-respectable seventh in goals allowed.
With Crosby and Malkin out, the Penguins have become…a defensive team? For real?
"When you looked at our opening roster, you probably wouldn't have thought that," forward Chris Kunitz said Wednesday. "But there's a belief in the locker-room that, from a system standpoint, we can hold teams to limited scoring chances. We believe in each other and think we have a chance every night."
Coach Dan Bylsma's ability to convince his players to spend as much energy preventing teams from scoring as the Penguins do in scoring themselves is one reason why general manager Ray Shero gave him a new contract at mid-season.
Another reason is the Penguins virtually are two different teams—one with Crosby, the other without him. Of their top six scorers during the first three months of the season, Chris Kunitz is the only one currently playing who ranks in the top six since.
All-star defenceman Kris Letang has slumped (he had 36 points in 41 games with Crosby, but has only 11 in 32 games without him) and forward Matt Cooke is suspended until the second round of the playoffs. Defenceman Alex Goligoski was traded. Jordan Staal didn't play until Jan. 1 due to two injuries.
The Penguins traded Goligoski to get promising scorer James Neal and defenceman Matt Niskanen from Dallas and reacquired Alex Kovalev from Ottawa on the premise of trying to replace some of the missing scoring. While Neal had the decisive shootout goal against Detroit on Monday, his contributions have been relatively modest: one goal and three assists in 12 games. Kovalev also won a game with a shootout goal, but he a lone goal and one assist in 11 games.
"Obviously, it hurts us when Sid's out of the lineup but, you know what? I don't really think what could have happened if he was still here," Kunitz said. "The goaltending's been great and the defensive corps has been stepping up."
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, awful for the first month of the season, has put together his best regular season since being the No. 1 overall pick in 2003. He is 31-18-5 with a 2.38 goals-against average and, if they were voting today, his teammates would choose him as the team MVP.
And their No. 1 centre? None other than Staal, who, only last season was a finalist for the Selke Trophy for defensive play by a forward.
"Obviously, I'm getting a few more opportunities on the offensive side of puck, but it doesn't feel much different," said Staal, who has a team-high 25 points in 32 games since Crosby was hurt. "I'm not trying to replace those two guys."
After Crosby was injured, the Penguins moved to the forefront among NHL franchises in pushing for rules changes to eliminate head shots. Team co-owner Lemieux issued a strongly worded statement condemning a fight-filled game against the Islanders, and he suggested a system of fines to punish teams that kept offending players.
Such a stance seemed incongruous for a franchise that employed Cooke, who has a history of hard hits on defenceless players. So, when Cooke levelled Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh with an elbow to the head Sunday, the Penguins were fully supportive when the NHL suspended him for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
Shero, in essence, told Cooke to clean up his act if he wanted to stay—even though Cooke accepted a contract that was well below market value to re-sign with Pittsburgh last summer.
Not many teams have taken such a stance when one of their own players was so harshly disciplined, yet it illustrates how Life Without Sid has changed the Penguins.
What is becoming all the more encouraging to the Penguins is that Crosby is beginning to show real signs that suggest Life Without Sid won't be indefinite.
Limited to skating around cones and shooting a few pucks during 15-minute sessions only last week, Crosby is working up a sweat during nearly daily workouts that apparently have not been disturbed by any concussion-type symptoms.
He has such a workout Wednesday and, while Bylsma said he isn't close to practising, much less playing, he likes what he sees.
"He's sweating, he's working hard and he's working both on and off the ice—on some days, just off the ice," Bylsma said. "He's putting in significant workouts, but he's not ready to progress."
Even if the Penguins look like they might be. Their record without Crosby suggests they very well could accomplish the initial goal set by Bylsma: Get into the playoffs, win the opening round, and then be very difficult to take down in the second round.
Based on how they do in their remaining nine games, the Penguins could finish as high as first in the Eastern Conference—it might take beating the conference-leading Flyers on Thursday and again on Tuesday in Pittsburgh—or, should they collapse down the stretch, as low as sixth.
More likely, they will finish fourth or fifth, with home ice against Tampa Bay in the first round dependent upon which team finishes fourth.
"I learned the first few days over here how everyone takes hold of their job and how everyone in the group does the right thing," Neal said. "I wasn't surprised at how good the team is without those guys, because it's a great group of guys. The top two can't be replaced, but how everyone works is awesome."