The Penguins' uphill road to the postseason is paved with broken mirrors and broken bones.
Two straight seasons of serious injuries to cornerstone players can be attributed to hideously bad luck, and the Penguins will likely have to weather the next month or more with four of their seven "core" players on injured reserve.
To borrow a phrase, Evgeni Malkin must feel like an armless, legless man with a hockey stick in his mouth.
“We have no choice but to deal with it,” winger-turned-center Pascal Dupuis said. “The fact that we went through it last year, we probably know with this group of guys that we can get through.”
While the Penguins went through a similar stretch last season, it was only similar in that a lot of people were out. This time around, a lot of people are missing from all phases of the team, and the Pens are without a points cushion to buffer their falling spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
Sidney Crosby, James Neal (who unexpectedly participated in Tuesday's morning skate), Kris Letang and Jordan Staal are on the shelf for the forseeable future, and others have missed or seem set to miss time, too.
While Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik will do everything they can to anchor the Pens' top-ten defense, Malkin is a man alone on the scoring side of the game.
Malkin's challenge comes in the midst of a season that at turns has seen him battle the effects of offseason knee surgery, surge to the top of the league in scoring and, at times, revert to taking careless penalties that put the Penguins on the defensive.
His pedigree is that of a top-five NHL player, and for most of this season he has looked the part. Now, the Pens' playoff chances rest partly on his ability to raise his game even higher.
"As a group we have to find a way to go out and have success and win hockey games," head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Last season, the Pens were able to win as a group because of excellent goal prevention, MVP-goaltending and a league-best penalty kill.
Each of those areas has taken a hit with the latest swing of injuries.
The Pens are missing three of their best penalty killers and their best individual defenseman. Fleury's ability to dominate is hindered without a complete blue line ahead of him. Orpik's game becomes weakened by the absence of his partner, Letang.
Those phases of the game are worse off than they were last season, when the Pens were without either of their dynamic centers and lost only members of their forward group.
In Malkin, the Penguins still have one game breaker left standing.
He played the role in 2008 when Crosby missed several weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Malkin asserted himself as an all-world player in Sid's absence, and continued that dominant play through the Stanley Cup win in 2009. He then gathered the Art Ross and Conn Smythe honors in lieu of two runner-up performances in Hart Trophy voting.
That version of Geno has been on display at times this season, in a five-point effort against Buffalo and in taking NHL Player of the Month honors in December.
Continuing that kind of play is going to become exponentially more important—and more difficult—in the wake of Pittsburgh's continued run of bad luck.
With Crosby out, Malkin automatically draws the shutdown assignment from every opposing defense. As Neal sits, Malkin loses his best finisher and linemate. Letang's absence makes him the go-to target on the power play. Staal's absence means he'll have to improve his ugly faceoff record—45.6 percent.
With so many key roles left vacant, Malkin will have to be everything to the Penguins.
“We understand that we’ll have to recall one, if not two, players to step in and play significant roles,” Bylsma said. “They’ll be counted on to step in and play the way we need to play to have success.”
The team has preached consistency, as expected. Bylsma will never publicly call on injuries as an excuse, and each player will be expected to perform in his new role. But that's just the corporate line. Matt Cooke is not a 20-goal scorer. Pascal Dupuis, for all he does, is no Jordan Staal. And no one can replace Letang.
Beneath their stars, the Penguins are a collection of high-energy grinders. That's no indictment—those players are performing in the roles tasked to them, and often admirably. But third-line players are not 25-goal scorers bound to checking roles because there are too many all-stars ahead of them. They can only play above their heads for so long.
The Penguins' ability to score goals has been severely limited, and Malkin's ability to pick up the slack will become exponentially more difficult as teams key in on Pittsburgh's last legitimate scoring threat.
Malkin has a tall task ahead of him. Improve on the faceoff dot. Avoid the careless penalties. Pick up the slack offensively. Keep the Penguins afloat in the ultra-competitive East.
And, for the love of God, stay healthy.
Geno has the pure talent to carry the team on his back. At no time in his career has doing so ever been more necessary, nor daunting, than now.
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