Penguins’ Injuries Are No Excuse For Defensive Lapses

When looking at a losing team, fans often console each other by saying, "Well, they were really injured."

In the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, one could easily make that claim when looking at their recent free-fall. After all, it's not everyday you lose two former league MVPs who haven't reached their theoretical peak yet. And yet, here are the Penguins, marching forward without Evgeni Malkin (torn ACL) and Sidney Crosby (concussion). We know Malkin won't return to the ice until next season's training camp. As for Crosby, well, who knows? It could be the next few weeks and it could be the next few months — concussions are scary, unpredictable things that lead to plenty of uncertainty. Let's not forget rookie Dustin Jeffrey and two-way forward Chris Kunitz.

So you might pin the Penguins recent woes on injuries — and it'd be fair to say that their goal-scoring has all but evaporated. But it's difficult to say that the Penguins are down out. A woe-is-me attitude doesn't remove one of the league's best groups of blueliners: Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, and Kris Letang. Nor does it knock out goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

When you lose some of your forward depth, of course you'll wind up giving up more scoring chances. Less time in the offensive zone generally leads to more time in the defensive zone, and that can inevitably lead to more shots against. However, the quality of Pittsburgh's defensemen shouldn't mean that all is lost without Crosby, Malkin, and the others. It just means that Pittsburgh will have to try and win games 2-1 instead of 4-2.

That inevitably puts more pressure on the shoulders of the defensemen and goaltending. Pittsburgh has the talent to turn games into gritty defensive contests. With Pittsburgh's place in the standings earned in the first half of the season, the rest of the crew has to simply steady the ship, not be world-beaters, to get into the playoffs. This might be the biggest challenge faced by coach Dan Bylsma since getting elevated to the NHL — especially if Crosby is indeed out for February and March and possibly even April. Through some recent stretches, it's clear that the Penguins haven't adapted.

Of course, if that is the case, then the even bigger challenge is navigating the playoffs without all of this talent. Assuming Crosby returns by the time the first round of the playoffs start, it's a manageable challenge and an opportunity for someone like, say, Jordan Staal to step into the spotlight.

The bigger picture than that, though, is for fans to treat the season with realistic expectations. If and when Crosby returns, there's no telling how he'll be affected by his first major concussion. Some players need days to return to form but others need weeks — and seeing that NHL teams are already at game 50-something, weeks aren't exactly available.

Up in Boston, the Marc Savard situation should provide warning enough of why patience is key. Savard came back too early late last season, wound up missing more time in training camp and early this season, and this sort of extra impact on his head probably lead to the increased susceptibility that created his current situation. With Crosby, he's not just a star center, he's the leader on and off the ice and the franchise player. A mistaken situation like Savard's would be unacceptable. His injury must be handled with extreme care.

Does that make this season a write-off to injury?

Yes and no. Players like Crosby and Malkin are irreplaceable, and inevitably contribute to a team's final standing. It's no reason to give up, though; it's up to the coaching staff to really buckle down and transform the team into a squad designed to win low-scoring games. For the fan, the most important thing to keep in mind is that concussions take time, and Crosby shouldn't be rushed back, even at the expense of this season's standings.

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