The Pittsburgh Penguins' season got underway on Thursday, even as team captain Sidney Crosby remained on the sidelines. Crosby continues to participate in workouts, but a date has not been set for his return.
One would think that the Penguins' chances of being a playoff contender are doomed as long as Crosby is not in the lineup. Right?
Not so fast.
Here are some reasons why the Pens are just fine without Crosby, even though they are eagerly anticipating his return.
Last year, the Penguins finished 25th in the NHL on the power play, as the unit worked at a dismal 15.8 percent rate despite many offensive weapons.
But early in the 2011-12 season, Pens fans have seen some signs that the power play misfortunes could turn around.
Whether the unit keeps working this way remains to be seen, but so far, the power play has shown it does not need Crosby to put up goals.
In 2010-11, the Penguins had the league's top penalty kill, as they did not allow a goal while shorthanded 86.1 percent of the time. They also gave up just 45 power-play goals.
So far, the Pens have been shorthanded 11 times and have not yet allowed their opponents' power play to score. Granted, none of their opponents to date had a top-10 power play last year, but the Penguins will take success any way they can get it.
Crosby was not a big part of the penalty kill while healthy last year, as he played just 28 seconds of time per game when the Pens were down a man. However, it shows that they don't need Crosby on the ice all the time to shut down opponents.
After missing 39 games last season with a knee injury and seeing his production drop for the second straight year due to injuries, Malkin was deemed healthy for the 2011-12 campaign. In the Penguins' first two games, he has a goal and an assist.
Malkin has previously stepped up in Crosby's absence. In 2008, he posted 20 goals and 44 points after Crosby was limited to just 53 games with a knee injury. He finished that season with 106 points.
If Malkin again misses significant time with injury, it could negatively impact his career. Here's hoping he can return soon and dominate the Penguins' scoresheet while Crosby is still out.
Neal scored the first goal of the 2011-12 season for the Penguins against the Canucks last Thursday night. He also had an assist in the Flames game and posted a shootout goal in Sunday's loss to the Oilers.
There are a lot of expectations surrounding Neal this season. He came to the Pens from the Dallas Stars in a trade last season. Although he had already eclipsed the 20-goal mark for the third straight year, he had just one goal in 20 games in Pittsburgh. He was widely considered a disappointment in that regard.
So far, Neal has two points in three games. If he can keep it up, he will become another key scorer for the Penguins as they march on without their captain.
Here is the breakdown of who scored in each of the Penguins' season-opening games:
at Vancouver, Oct. 6
Regulation: James Neal and Matt Cooke (two goals)
Shootout: Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin
at Calgary, Oct. 8
Tyler Kennedy, Matt Niskanen (power-play goal), Craig Adams, Malkin (power-play goal), Jordan Staal
at Edmonton, Oct. 9
Shootout: Letang and Neal
While the Penguins' top stars do appear on this list, you'll also notice some unusual names stepping up when needed. Niskanen, for example, has already matched his goal total from 2010-11. Adams has 42 goals in more than 600 career games. And Cooke had a solid night to show that he is indeed trying to change the way he plays.
The Penguins appreciate having an asset like Crosby, but it's not like they forget how to score goals without him, either.
As Pens fans remember, this is not the first time their star player has been out of the lineup for an extended amount of time.
In 2008, when Crosby was out of the lineup with a high ankle sprain, the Pens went 16-8-4. Outstanding play from backup netminder Ty Conklin (who was in net while Marc-Andre Fleury also dealt with an injury) and contributions from Evgeni Malkin (see slide No. 3) helped the Pens secure a playoff berth and remain a threat to opponents.
Then, last season, Crosby's last game was on Jan. 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. After that, starting with their Jan. 6 game against the Montreal Canadiens, the Pens went 23-13-5 the rest of the way. Their final record was 49-25-8 for 106 points and fourth in the Eastern Conference.
So far, the Pens are 2-0-1 without Crosby and are sitting in first place in the conference.
While it's still early in the season and we shouldn't plan the Stanley Cup parade yet, the Penguins have shown that they have the talent, work ethic and desire to rise above not having their captain. An obstacle that may cause other teams to stumble has helped the Pens keep a top spot in the standings.
And really, in April, all that's going to matter is whether they are No. 1 through No. 8.