Gritty, tenacious, inspired, costly.
Those are just some of the ways I would describe the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Buffalo Sabres Friday night. However, the win didn’t come without a price.
Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup after missing five games with a knee injury and a sinus infection. After a collision with Buffalo’s Tyler Myers just seconds into the second period, Geno needed help getting up.
Replays showed Myers falling into Malkin’s right knee, which forced it to bend the wrong way. Malkin gingerly skated off the ice and did not return to the game. It’s also worth noting that this was not Myers’ fault in any way, nor was it intentional. (See the update on his condition below.)
The Sabres hadn’t played a game in nine days and showed no signs of rust early on. They struck for two goals in the first 7:03 of play. The first came just 17 seconds into the game, which prompted me to utter a few choice words not suitable for print.
Pittsburgh looked sloppy for the first half of the period, but a television timeout seemed to be just what they needed.
When play resumed, the Tyler Kennedy-Jordan Staal-Matt Cooke line was on the ice. They turned in the best shift of the period, which seemed to wake up the rest of the team.
Somehow, the Pens outshot the Sabres 14-10 in the first period, but were unable to solve Ryan Miller.
With Malkin in the locker room, Dustin Jeffrey was thrust back into the spotlight. It didn’t take long for him to make a difference either.
About four minutes into the second period, Jeffrey drove the net and let a seemingly harmless backhand shot go. The rebound bounced off a Sabres’ defenseman in front and ended up in the net.
Seriously, how good has Jeffrey been? It’s unreal. It’s got to be tough on him to constantly be bouncing back and forth between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Even more impressive is how he can seamlessly fit in on any line and in any role. He started the game on the fourth line last night with Chris Conner and Eric Tangradi. Against the Islanders, he was centering Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.
What impresses me most about his play is how simple he keeps everything. Pucks get to the net, he chips the puck in, he works hard in the defensive zone and he doesn’t take a shift off.
It’s going to be very interesting to see what his future holds when, Sidney Crosby, Arron Asham, Mark Letestu and Malkin return to the lineup. That, and what the landscape of the team looks like if those guys are back by the trade deadline.
Anyway, Kennedy evened the score 2:34 later on a wrist shot from the right circle. Seconds before the goal, Kris Letang fooled Miller from almost the same spot, but caught all iron.
The next rush down the ice, Kennedy blows the puck by Miller’s glove, giving him goals in two consecutive games.
The comeback was completed when Staal stripped Nathan Gerbe of the puck along the near wall. Staal slid the puck near the front of the net, where Cooke was able to dance around Miller to score the eventual game-winning goal.
Gerbe had just taken the puck away from Staal at the blue line, but Staal didn’t let up on the play. Once Staal stole the puck back, three Sabres were around him, leaving Cooke alone in the zone.
From there, Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall and turned aside 13 shots in the third period to notch his 25th win of the season.
Pittsburgh has now won five straight games without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup. Yes, Malkin skated briefly last night, but the team still won without him.
The team is doing everything they need to do in order to be successful. I’ve already detailed what the blueprint for success is right now in earlier posts, but I can’t help but wonder if trying times lie ahead.
Chalk all of the following up to the pessimist in me. (I did grow up as a Boston Red Sox fan, where expecting the bottom to fall out was the norm.)
We don’t yet know the severity of Malkin’s injury. (Side Note: He will be re-evaluated sometime today.)
UPDATE 1:30 P.M.: Head Coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin had suffered a torn ACL and MCL. The team is now exploring options on how to treat the injury. Needless to say, this is not good news. His season is likely done at this point.
We don’t know when Crosby will return to the lineup.
The schedule-makers have been kind recently. Only one of those five consecutive wins was against a team currently in the playoff hunt. (Rangers – 7th Eastern Conference)
The other four wins have come against Eastern Conference foes in Carolina (9th), Buffalo (11th) and they’ve shutout the Islanders (15th) twice.
(Side Note: Islanders’ goaltender Rick DiPietro will be out 4-to-6 weeks after having his face caved in by Brent Johnson Wednesday night. He suffered broken bones in his face and also has swelling in his knees. At some point you have to feel for the guy, given the number of injuries he’s sustained since signing that 15-year deal. Also, it’s amazing how quick Johnson’s glove is considering his left hand is a cinder block. This picture will never get old either.)
The good news is that the Pens are beating the teams they should be beating.
A big test of character will come tomorrow afternoon when they head to Washington to take on the Capitals. If the playoffs started today, the Penguins and Capitals would meet in the first round.
The other good news is that should Crosby return before the playoffs, he’ll be rested and will rejoin a team that is already battle-tested. Let’s keep in mind that this is still the team that ripped off 12 straight wins earlier this season.
Should the team be as healthy as possible heading into the playoffs, all the win streaks, line combinations used, number of man games lost to injury, etc. will be a thing of the past.
The only number on anyone’s mind will be the amount of wins needed to hoist the Stanley Cup.
That number, of course, is 16.
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