Daily Debate: How are the Penguins still winning without Sidney Crosby?

March, 22, 2011
3/22/11
12:08
PM ET

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the fate of Sidney Crosby and draw comparisons between Pittsburgh and Phoenix:

Burnside: Good day, my friend. I was emailing with a colleague last night during the Pittsburgh/Detroit game. When the Pens had built a 4-0 lead, he wondered whether the Red Wings could get out of the first round of the playoffs.

About 10 minutes later, when the Wings rallied to tie the score at 4, he said not to bother with that previous message; the Wings were Cup-bound. It was that kind of hockey game (won by the Pens in a shootout) and a nice reminder of those two great Stanley Cup finals between the two clubs in 2008 and 2009.

But it brings into focus the issue of what the Penguins might look like come playoff time. With Sidney Crosby (concussion) now regularly skating but his timetable for return still a mystery, it has added to the drama as we head into the final weeks of the regular season. I had communication yesterday with a person who is familiar with Crosby's situation and even he couldn't shed any light on whether we will see the game's best player in action come playoff time.

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby
Brian Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 6 because of a concussion.

LeBrun: Even without Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk -- three of the top players in the world -- that was still a thrill-a-minute game last night at Joe Louis Arena. With so much focus on concussions, head shots, suspensions and possible relocation of teams, sometimes you forget just how sensational the games can be. And it would be a better league if the game's top player could return this season. It's obviously encouraging to see Crosby skating now for more than a week, and yet, as you said, impossible to know what it really means.

"This is just part of his rehab, part of that is getting back on the ice," Penguins GM Ray Shero told me this morning. "But in terms of getting everybody's hopes up, I don't want to do that. There's no expectations as to whether he's coming back or not. It's just part of his rehab and I feel better for him that as a world-class athlete he can get on the ice. It's been difficult for him for two months not to be able to do anything, so this is a good step. But what does that mean [for this season]? I can't even guess."

Just the slightest symptom and Crosby would need to pause. The Penguins, meanwhile, continue to survive without their top two centers and you can only tip your hat to coach Dan Bylsma.

Burnside: I will say out loud that I think Crosby will be back for the playoffs. No other reason to say that than my gut and the fact it would be a great story (in the end, it's really all about we in the media, anyway!) So that's my prediction and I'm sticking to it!

Without Crosby in the mix, it becomes a lot more difficult to handicap the Pens. They remind me a bit of the Phoenix Coyotes in that they work like crazy and rely on scoring by committee to get the job done (three different Pens players scored in regulation before James Neal added the shootout winner Monday). They have the top penalty-killing unit in the league, although losing Matt Cooke through the first round will be felt, perhaps mightily.

And then there's Marc-Andre Fleury, who, after a miserable start, has turned in a Vezina-worthy performance through the last three quarters of the season. His 2.38 goals-against average matches Carey Price's numbers in Montreal; but you never hear Fleury's name in connection to the trophy, while Price is earning Vezina and Hart Trophy buzz. Just saying. Still, it's hard to imagine the Pens embarking on any kind of playoff roll without No. 87 in the lineup.

LeBrun: The comparison to Phoenix is an interesting one, Scotty. I've got a Coyotes story coming out today, on how they've been able to tune out the ongoing ownership saga and keep winning games. Without Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins are built similar to the Coyotes up front in a lot of ways -- a lunch-bucket crew. The Coyotes have no real first line, no real third line, just four lines who all get a chance to play.

"It gives you a real team chemistry that guys realize any given night they can be the hero for our team," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told me yesterday. "You've got Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal that are pretty consistent contributors. But we've had a cast of other guys where one guy gets hot for eight or 10 games, then he'll drop off and another guy will get hot. It's led to a real good team atmosphere."

Sound familiar? I think you're seeing that right now with the Penguins. It's like the healthy forwards have taken it to heart that everyone is saying they can't win without Crosby and Malkin. They're now getting contributions from different players. Sure, Jordan Staal is the workhorse, but there's different players stepping up every night. Just like the Coyotes.

Burnside: I guess what separates the Pens from the Coyotes is the Pittsburgh blue line is deep and multi-faceted with Kris Letang shouldering a lot more offensive weight this season with Sergei Gonchar gone. He played 28:39 last night and, while he seems to have fallen out of the Norris Trophy discussion, has really emerged as a blue-chip NHL defenseman this season.

With Brooks Orpik (broken finger) due back before the playoffs, the Pens are as deep along the blue line as any team in the Eastern Conference, including Philadelphia. Is that enough for a deep playoff run? Time will tell, but it's sure going to be one of the more compelling playoff storylines regardless of how the Crosby plotline plays out.

LeBrun: I disagree with you regarding the Pens-Coyotes blue-line comparison. I believe they're pretty comparable. I'll give you a Keith Yandle from the Coyotes to your Kris Letang. I'll give you GM Don Maloney adding Michal Rozsival and Rostislav Klesla to a blue-line corps that also includes veterans Adrian Aucoin and Derek Morris. That's a deep blue line, and a big reason the Coyotes are sitting fourth in the West.

The Penguins need Fleury to continue his excellence and need to outwork their opponents in low-scoring games. That's going to be the key for Pittsburgh's survival. Sound familiar?

At the end of the night, just like Detroit on Monday, the opposing team will wonder how it lost to a Penguins team missing Crosby and Malkin. It will have been outworked, that's how.

"If I had a dollar for every game where the other team said they should have won the night before, I'd be a rich man," Tippett said of his own team.

The Pittsburgh Coyotes? For now, that's going to be the recipe to both teams' survivals.


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