The NHL should take note of what is brewing in western Pennsylvania because the Pittsburgh Penguins are finding their steam without the help of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a seemingly nightmarish situation for a team that depends highly on their skill centers.
The rest of the Pens, however, would have none of it and are riding a four-game winning streak without the services of Crosby and Malkin and, as of recent, Mark Letestu who is being evaluated with a lower-body injury.
To call the Pens depleted would be a severe understatement, but a lack of Crosby and Malkin in the lineup has been anything but a problem.
In fact, it could very well become the Pens' biggest blessing of the season because of the growth taking place within the team.
The Pens had an usual start to the 2010-2011 season. Pumped to avenge their poor showing against the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs paired with the grand opening of the new Consol Energy Center, the Pens were ready to kick the door open to the new season but fell in the season opener to cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers.
The following game, a rematch of the series against the Canadiens, ended on a bitter note as well.
The tires of the Pens' bus—and bandwagon—immediately deflated.
The Pens' spree of half-hearted play continued and they went 6-5-1 in the month of October. After GM Ray Shero worked some magic to bring in defensive defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek and cheap forwards Mike Comrie and Arron Asham in the offseason, this start was clearly not sitting well with anyone, especially the fans.
It only took the first two losses of the season before people started calling for a coaching change and that we needed some trades.
The complaints led me to write this article. The main point of the article was to emphasize hockey seasons aren't decided in the beginning, but rather, the end.
Thus far, it has held true. The Pens are an entirely different team now than they were at the beginning of the season and they continue to change for the better as more time passes without Crosby and Malkin.
When Crosby went down with a concussion, the Pens seemed doomed, losing the one player keeping the team's head above water despite poor showings from the rest of the team. The Pens three losses following Crosby's injury illustrated just how important he is to the team.
When Malkin joined Crosby with an injury and illness shortly after, so went the Pens' main sources of offense since the post-lockout era.
However, following those three losses, the Pens rebounded by going 7-1. Malkin was in the lineup for only three of those games.
The Pens have gone through Crosby-less and Malkin-less bouts. When one has been out of the lineup, the other has often picked up the pace to carry the team and avoid damage to the Pens' standings. Malkin did this when Crosby was out with a high-ankle sprain in January of 2008.
That scenario, though, is incomparable to both Crosby and Malkin being out of the lineup at the same time. The Pens become a much weaker team when both are absent.
Despite the weakened lineup, it gave the Pens a chance to truly push themselves. I made a slideshow how the Pens could benefit without Crosby and Malkin.
The most important slide, in my opinion, was the fact that more players would have the responsibility to lead the team to wins, rather than simply depending on the stars. Once players take it upon themselves to be better than they are, then the wins will follow.
That is exactly what we have seen.
From top to bottom, the Pens are playing strong hockey. On offense, Chris Kunitz has been finding the net on a regular basis and Jordan Staal has regained his form after a lengthy injury. Call-ups Chris Conner and Dustin Jeffrey have risen above and beyond expectations with timely goals and overall smart play on both ends of the ice.
The entire defensive corps has been a brick wall, especially Marc-Andre Fleury who has remained in the top eight of all goalie categories. Kris Letang, as we all know, is having a career year and has become a serious contender for the Norris Trophy.
And this is all happening without Crosby and Malkin.
Can you imagine what will happen when they return to the lineup healthy and ready to roll? Keep in mind that Crosby, Malkin and Staal have only played two games together this season.
One was the Winter Classic, the other was an 8-1 annihilation of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Pens have been fighting through adversity with the injuries that have been piling up, but these last two games against New York teams are what have shed the light that something amazing could happen in the following weeks.
The first game against the Rangers saw the Pens overcome a 2-0 deficit after losing Staal to a match penalty. The loss of Staal meant the Pens were playing without their top four centers after losing Letestu earlier that morning.
The challenge was welcomed and goals from Jeffrey, Mike Rupp and Kunitz brought the Pens to life before Jeffrey silenced Madison Square Garden with a shootout goal that won the game.
Wednesday's game against the Islanders was the icing on the cake.
Max Talbot, largely criticized as of late because of his lack of production and visibility on the ice, played his strongest game of the season while scoring his first goal in what seemed like centuries. Hopefully getting the gorilla off his back will mean more good things in the future.
Most importantly was the goalie fight that has drawn so much publicity in the last 20 hours.
Brent Johnson's one-sided brawl with Rick DiPietro, while entertaining to watch, was a huge moment of team cohesion that may carry more weight than meets the eye.
Goalie fights during this hockey era are extreme rare, not only because goalies aren't built to throw punches for the most part, but because they don't need to.
Johnson standing up to DiPietro after targeting Matt Cooke at the end of the game demonstrated that no player on the Pens is above fighting if it means protecting teammates. The respect for Johnson, among the rest of the Pens and Pens fans, has skyrocketed because of the lasting image of a goalie fighting to protect an agitator.
It was a sign that the Pens have come together and are supporting each other in every way.
After a rough start, things are looking up for the Pens, a huge reward after fighting through the issues they have faced this season. And now, as we step into the final stretch of the season, we are finally seeing a team bursting with pride as they take their shifts and work hard every second of them.
We are finally seeing a team play like they want to win.
And this is all happening without Crosby and Malkin.
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or questions.