PITTSBURGH – The most dynamic player in the world is questionable with a broken jaw. The reigning NHL MVP is coming off an injury-plagued and subpar – by his standards – regular season.
The goaltender and his wife are dealing with a newborn baby. The sniper who scored a career-high 40 goals a year ago is barely three weeks removed from a concussion. The rock the defense is built around is out with a lower body injury. The foursome acquired at the trade deadline still have no idea where they’re going when they hop in a car and try to find their way around the city.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins are still heavy favorites to lift the Stanley Cup sometime in the next two months?
“We’ve proven in a number of situations, no matter who is out, we’re capable of playing good hockey,” Sidney Crosby said.
They haven’t really had a choice.
Pittsburgh cruised to the Eastern Conference’s best record despite missing Crosby for the final month of the season after he took a stray shot off his jaw. The Penguins dominated even with Evgeni Malkin sitting out 17 games because of a lingering shoulder problem. They strolled while James Neal dealt with the after effects of an elbow to the head and had no problem when goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury spent the last few weeks anxiously awaiting the birth of his daughter.
Newcomers Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Douglas Murray and Brenden Morrow have fit in seamlessly after being acquired at the trade deadline to fuel a Cup run, even if they’ve taken to sticking close to their hotel on off days rather than get lost in Pittsburgh’s byzantine roadways.
Whether Crosby is cleared for Wednesday night’s playoff opener against the upstart New York Islanders hardly matters. The pressure – as always – is firmly on the Penguins.
“It’s what we’re used to,” Crosby said. “We’re all excited and glad to be in this position.”
The Islanders, too, though for entirely different reasons. While the Penguins are fixtures this time of year, New York is making its first playoff appearance since 2007. That’s a lifetime by hockey standards. Islanders star John Tavares was a 16-year-old back then lighting up the Ontario Hockey League.
Now he’s the linchpin of a team that hasn’t made it out of the first round in 20 years.
“We’ve proven we have the ability to make the playoffs and be a tough team to play against and compete with every team in the league,” Tavares said. “Now it’s another test, another level to challenge ourselves to be successful. This is that next step for us to raise our level. We ultimately want to win the Stanley Cup.”
The Penguins have no other choice after general manager Ray Shero brought in a future Hall of Famer in Iginla and distinguished veterans Morrow, Jokinen and Murray without trading away a single player on the NHL roster.
Shero makes no secret that his team is “all in” as the franchise tries to get a Cup to bookend the one it captured in 2009. The last three springs have not been so kind. Pittsburgh was upset in the second round by Montreal in 2010 then blew a 3-1 lead to Tampa Bay in 2011, though the Penguins did go into the postseason without Crosby and Malkin.
Both stars were healthy a year ago, though it did little to stop the Philadelphia Flyers from embarrassing Pittsburgh in six remarkable games that featured a combined 54 goals.
“We played bad, you know; we lost by big scores,” Malkin said. “We need to play better defensive zone. This season we work hard. I think we play great in defensive zone.”
Coach Dan Bylsma stressed the importance of personal responsibility and during a 15-game winning streak in March, the Penguins looked like they’d finally learned their lesson, posting three consecutive shutouts at one point.
Pittsburgh’s plus-46 goal differential was second in the NHL behind Chicago. And whenever Fleury faltered, backup Tomas Vokoun was every bit Fleury’s equal. The goaltenders posted nearly identical save percentages and goals against averages, though Bylsma left little doubt that Fleury is No. 1.
The Islanders don’t have nearly as much margin for error. Evgeni Nabokov helped spearhead a late surge that saw the Islanders lost just once in regulation for the season’s final three weeks. The 37-year-old led the San Jose Sharks into the postseason regularly for almost a decade, though the underachieving Sharks could never quite make it to the Cup finals.
A victory over the top-seeded Penguins would go a long way toward expunging Nabokov’s so-so postseason record (40-38). He plans to be tested regularly by the NHL’s highest scoring team.
One that figures to throw pucks at him relentlessly even if Crosby remains sidelined. Pittsburgh finished the season on an 8-4 run with Crosby out, including an 8-3 romp over Carolina in the regular season finale that included a hat trick from Neal and Morrow’s sixth goal in 15 games since coming over from Dallas.
Morrow is in his 13th year and still searching for his first Cup. He waived his no-trade clause to join a team that – on paper at least – is more formidable than any of the other seven teams in the East. With or without Crosby.
“If he’s in the lineup, that makes us a lot better hockey club,” Morrow said. “But if he’s not, somebody else is going to step up and play hard and take his place.”