Losing their two biggest stars for the last half of last season was a lot more than short-term pain for the Pittsburgh Penguins but there is no doubt it revealed the possibility of long-term gain.
Only one of those stars will be in the lineup when the Penguins open the 2011-12 NHL regular season Thursday in Vancouver – centre Evgeni Malkin – but there is no doubt the Penguins remain one of the league’s elite teams. Running up 106 points last season with Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the injured list showed the Penguins they can win without them, thanks to buying into head coach Dan Bylsma’s demands for a better defensive game.
Now, with Malkin fully recovered from knee surgery, he is in position to prove he can be a difference-maker while Crosby completes his recovery from a concussion.
“We have 25 good players. But I think, yeah, [if Crosby is out]it's my team,” Malkin said. “If he doesn't play, I'll try [to play at]100 per cent. I'll try my hardest.”
If Malkin, 25, does outshine Crosby, who is one year his junior, it will not be without precedent. In 2008-09, Malkin stepped up to win the NHL points race with 113 in the regular season and added another 36 in the playoffs to be the most valuable player of the postseason as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
At this point, it looks like Crosby is tantalizingly close to returning, although the Penguins said he will not be ready for their season-opener against the Vancouver Canucks. Crosby said his recovery stalled and then improved after seeing Ted Carrick, a chiropractor based in Florida who is the leader of a controversial new field called chiropractic neurology.
But even if Crosby’s recovery drags on, the Penguins’ third centre, Jordan Staal, says last season’s learning experience without Crosby and Malkin will keep the team on track.
“We learned to win a different way last year, not play different,” Staal said. “Ever since I’ve been here we’ve always been concerned with our defence. Maybe that gets overlooked because we have Sid and Geno [Malkin] but if you look at our stats we usually do pretty well defensively. We’ve been good on the penalty kill every year, and last year I think we finished first after being near the top for most of the year.
“So, I guess you could see we learned to play a different way, but really we just learned how to win those tight, close games on a regular basis.”
Winning those close games required a commitment to defence. The Penguins may not have played differently without Crosby and Malkin but there was no question their zeal to play defensively increased.
The defence should be even better this season, considering Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, newcomers last season, are now familiar with Bylsma’s approach. Kris Letang is now entrenched as an offensive threat from the blueline and Brooks Orpik, who should be ready to play after recovering from abdominal surgery, rounds out an excellent top four.
One intangible is the return of Matt Cooke from last season’s suspension for the latest of his dirty hits. He swears he has finally changed his approach and the Penguins seem to believe him.
The Penguins ultimately disappointed their fans by blowing a 3-1 lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. But with a tenacious defence boosted by a healthy Malkin, not to mention the hope winger James Neal will regain the scoring touch he seemed to have left in Dallas when he was traded, the Penguins are primed to challenge for the Stanley Cup again.
“We want to be tough to play against, and we were last year,” Staal said. “We didn’t have a lot of room for error without Sid and Geno, so maybe that made us all step up.
“But we proved we have a lot of good players; that’s what we proved last year.”