When it comes to facing the NHL playoffs without Sidney Crosby, not to mention Evgeni Malkin, the reaction in the Pittsburgh Penguins' dressing room ranges from a yawn to a disdainful sneer.
After all, it was not just last week that Crosby was lost to a concussion or Malkin to season-ending knee surgery.
"It's been four months," an only slightly exasperated Pascal Dupuis said of missing Crosby, who was lost to a concussion on Jan. 5. "Obviously, he's the best player in the game so you want him on your team but this team learned how to win without it's top two players so it shows a lot of character. It shows how deep this team is."
And if Crosby, who practiced with his teammates on the eve of their Wednesday playoff opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning, does manage to come back during the playoffs, Dupuis added slyly, "it shows we can be really, really dangerous when he comes back."
Much of the credit for the Penguins' march to 106 points and fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the second-highest points total in team history, goes to head coach Dan Bylsma. He changed his team's game to emphasize defence without the two superstars, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury picked up the slack late in the season when the Penguins' modest scoring tailed off.
"One thing I'm most proud of is we didn't sneak into the playoffs with 91 points," Bylsma said. "This team found a way to keep battling, whether it was goaltending or winning one-goal games, we found ways to be a successful team."
Success against the formidable Lightning will come down to Fleury and the defence pairs of Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang and Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. They have to shut down the Lightning's big three of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steve Stamkos if the Penguins are to advance.
The Penguins also have to make sure their penalty-killing unit, the best in the NHL during the regular season with an 86.1-per-cent success rate, maintains its excellence. The Lightning power play, with the aforementioned stars, is merciless, having finished sixth during the season with a 20.5-per-cent success rate.
Offensively, the Penguins have little hope of resuscitating their power play, which sank to 25th in the NHL without Crosby and Malkin. But they do need to get winger James Neal, who is in the playoffs for the first time, to start scoring, along with Alexei Kovalev, another trade-deadline pickup. They represent two-thirds of the Pens' top line but Neal has one goal and Kovalev two in 20 games with the team.
With Orpik back from an injury, Bylsma indicated the defence pair of Martin and Michalek will get most of the work against the Lightning's big trio. Centre Jordan Staal can also expect to see a lot of ice against them. The coach said Martin and Michalek excel at taking room away from skilled players and in getting the puck out of their own zone quickly so the opposition cannot set up its offence.
Michalek said the key to stopping St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos is getting to St. Louis because he is the one who distributes the puck. "We have to make sure we don't give him time and space to set up," Michalek said.
But the defenceman acknowledged players as skilled as those three are still going to get scoring chances, so "blocking shots is big, to help Flower [Fleury]out."
After that, it will be up to Fleury to outplay the Lightning's ageless wonder in goal, 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson.
"We will depend on him big time, for sure," Michalek said.