PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby is still recovering from a concussion, Evgeni Malkin has missed the past two games with a suspected leg injury and Brooks Orpik has not returned from offseason abdominal surgery.
For most teams, losing their top two centers, plus their best defensive defenseman, would be disastrous. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s merely an inconvenience — and one more reason to savor the view from atop the NHL standings.
On Thursday, they host the rival Washington Capitals, who will bring a 2-0 record — and a seven-game winning streak in Pittsburgh — to Consol Energy Center for one of this month’s most anticipated matchups.
“There are times where you don’t have to get up for the game, whether you’re feeling great or not feeling great, whether you’re coming off the road, whatever scenario you want to dream up,” Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma said. “We all looked at the schedule. We all saw Vancouver on that first trip, and you’re coming home and, ‘Oh, there’s the Capitals.’ ”
The Capitals will have all of their stars Thursday, but the Penguins seem to have a penchant for overcoming the types of injuries that would sink other clubs.
“It’s the commitment in this room,” Pittsburgh veteran Matt Cooke said. “We play a certain way no matter who is in the lineup, and that’s the strength of our team. We have a good enough team that if guys can’t play, we can hold the fort.”
Cooke and his teammates, though, may not have to hold it down much longer.
On Wednesday, Crosby was the first Penguin on the ice for practice and again skated at full speed for the entire hour-long optional session. He could be cleared for contact later this week after he meets with the medical team that has overseen his recovery from the concussion that’s sidelined him since Jan. 5. But even if he does get cleared in the coming days, his return is likely weeks away given that he’s missed almost 10 months.
Malkin, who has been nursing an undisclosed injury since the third period of the Penguins’ second game, did not practice Wednesday and his status for Thursday is unclear. Bylsma wouldn’t get specific about the nature or location of Malkin’s ailment, but he has said that it’s not related to the surgically repaired knee that cost the forward almost half of last season.
Despite the injuries, though, there’s no sense of panic.
“There are a lot of guys in this room that can do the things we need to do to win games,” forward Jordan Staal said. “There’s a lot of depth and a lot of leadership.”
That the Penguins have the most points in the NHL at 3-0-1, despite the absence of three of their most important players, should come as a surprise to no one. They’ve been finding ways to compensate since the middle of last season.
Staal was the first to go down, sidelined by a broken hand he suffered while preparing to return from a foot injury. He returned to the lineup Jan. 1 .
Crosby had 66 points in the season’s first 41 games and appeared to be en route to a second Hart Trophy before he collided with former Capital David Steckel in the Winter Classic. He took a high hit from Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman four days later and hasn’t played since.
Malkin, meantime, played through a variety of ailments until torn medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee ended his season in February.
In all, the “Big Three” and their combined $21.4 million in salary only suited up in the same game twice last season. The previous season, they combined to score 100 of the Penguins’ 249 goals.
“As sad as it is,” forward Mark Letestu said, “we’re kind of used to it now.”
The Penguins struggled after Malkin joined Crosby on the long-term injured list, losing 10 of the next 13 games (3-6-4). They could have folded. They did not.
Instead, the Penguins adjusted to their new reality and tightened up in the defensive zone behind goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s strong play in net and a league-leading penalty kill anchored by 2010 offseason acquisitions Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. It helped them trim nearly a half goal per game from the previous season. They also were buoyed by the rise of role players such as Tyler Kennedy, who scored a career-best 21 goals.
Even with a roster held together on some nights with duct tape, the Penguins won 12 of their final 16 regular season games before blowing a three-games-to-one lead against Tampa Bay in the quarterfinals.
An entire offseason passed and the Penguins’ injury situation didn’t improve much. Judging from the way this month has gone, though, they have picked up right where the 2010-11 regular season ended.
The Penguins opened 2-0-1 on a western Canada road trip that made stops in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. They came home Tuesday and buried the Florida Panthers, 4-2. Two of the goals came from the third line (Cooke and Pascal Dupuis) and another came shorthanded (Richard Park).
The pillars that helped the Penguins withstand the injuries a year ago are, once again, propping them up. Fleury made 32 saves against Florida, including an acrobatic, desperation stop on Stephen Weiss, while the penalty kill extinguished all five Panther power plays and is now 16-for-16.
But the Penguins’ fast start isn’t what has Pittsburgh’s sports radio abuzz these days. It’s the anticipation of getting the parcel back together soon.
If Crosby is cleared this week, he could return by November. Malkin’s latest injury is not considered to be a serious one. Orpik is the one question mark; he has not practiced since Saturday.
“It’s never fun watching,” Crosby said. “It’s nice to be getting closer and nice to be getting out there and going hard. I haven’t had anything that’s really worried me, so it’s been nice to kind of have that the last couple weeks there.”
Crosby has not missed a scheduled practice since the start of training camp. This week, he has begun jostling with teammates.
“You saw that a little bit today out there,” Bylsma said, “feeling the guy on his back.”
As proud as the Penguins are of the way they’ve played during Crosby’s absence, the optimism is palpable around the dressing room these days.
“Everyone kind of has a sense,” goaltender Brent Johnson said. “You don’t want to see anyone rushed back, especially right now. Guys are getting it done. So there’s less pressure for him to rush back.”
“But,” he added, “whenever he gets back in lineup, it’s just going to be an added bonus. It’s going to be fantastic.”