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Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin (71) hits Ottawa Senators Erik Karlsson (L) in the first overtime period of Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania April 22, 2010. (JASON COHN/REUTERS)
Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin (71) hits Ottawa Senators Erik Karlsson (L) in the first overtime period of Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania April 22, 2010. (JASON COHN/REUTERS)

Pens battle depth issues Add to ...

At first glance, these Pittsburgh Penguins look an awful lot like the team that won it all a year ago.

There is, for one, still skill, size and youth down the middle in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal - the deepest group of centres in the league.

There, too, is netminder Marc-André Fleury, and veterans like Sergei Gonchar and Bill Guerin, all three instrumental in a championship last June.

All told, 17 Penguins that have suited up in these playoffs contributed to last year's run, an impressive level of continuity in the salary cap age.

Look a little closer, however, and you can see the losses are there - and just how they have helped ease Pittsburgh back to the pack.

Gone are two 20-minute-a-night defenders in Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, the latter of whom has become frustration agent No. 1 for Crosby in this series after he joined the Montreal Canadiens last summer.

Gone also is any depth on the wing, where previously the likes of Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora took some of the focus off Crosby and Malkin and gave checkers fits en route to back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup final.

The salary cap - combined with the need to compensate the team's young stars - has left general manager Ray Shero with some tough decisions every off-season, and as a result, these Penguins aren't quite as deep as they're often credited with being.

Everyone who is back is being asked to do more this time around - especially on the back end, where coach Dan Bylsma is leaning on more of a five-man group (including relative newcomer Alex Goligoski) than the six 20-minute men he had in 2009.

In this era of parity, this is what a contender looks like - and the reality is that the eighth seeds, like these plucky Canadiens, aren't all that far behind.

"They've given us everything we expected and more," Penguins winger Matt Cooke remarked of Montreal after Wednesday's practice. "There hasn't been an easy time yet."

The good news for Pittsburgh is that they found a way to grit out a Game 3 win by the wispy hairs on Crosby's chin, getting only one goal past Jaroslav Halak on Tuesday to take a 2-1 series lead.

The bad news is that both Staal and Guerin are ailing, having missed that contest and leaving Bylsma little choice but to run his thoroughbreds out with a few mules on the wings. (No offence, Pascal Dupuis.)

"There was a little bit of a question mark, coming into a tough place to play on the road," Bylsma said of approaching Game 3 with holes in his lineup. "We'd lost some guys that are part of the foundation of how we play and how we react to situations.

"It's not a situation you want to find yourself in for too long. But I thought our guys did a great job stepping in."

Staal - the team's ace checking centre and a Selke Trophy candidate this season - was in full gear at practice Wednesday testing out his foot, which had a tendon sliced by Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban's skate in Game 1.

He skated with a limp and remains questionable for Thursday's game but is approaching a recovery - good news given many of Staal's defensive duties have been lumped on an already burdened Crosby in this series.

Guerin, meanwhile, remains much more of a mystery, as the reason he isn't playing - and his expected return date - are completely unknown. The 39-year-old was the Penguins top scoring winger during the regular season with only 45 points, and has been one of their top offensive options so far in the playoffs with eight points in eight games.

Minus that pair, the difference between the defending champs and the underdog Habs becomes much harder to find, and the tight-checking nature of the series may tip the balance in the Canadiens' favour.

The Penguins, after all, have put just two goals past Halak at even strength in three games, and while the power play has come up big (5-for-11), it's no certainty those opportunities won't go the Canadiens' way down the line.

A bounce here and a bounce there, and Montreal could well be right back in the series, heading into Game 5 in Pittsburgh with the Cinderella storyline still intact.

"That's playoff hockey," Cooke said. "It's close, it's intense, and it comes down to the team that executes the best and makes the most of its chances."

It really is, in other words, anyone's game.

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