With Crosby dealing with the symptoms that go hand-in-hand with having your marbles scrambled — twice — the Pens have gone an impressive 31-15-7 without No. 87 in the lineup.
What’s their secret?
With the help of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, here is a look at some of the factors for the team’s success sans Crosby.
Dan’s The Man
When he took over the reigns as coach of the Penguins from Mike (Don’t Call Me Michel) Therrien midway through the 2008-09 season, Dan Bylsma’s philosophy was simple: Play to your strengths.
In terms of the Pens, that meant fully exploiting the ridiculous skills of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin by adopting a free-flowing, puck-pressure system that constantly drives towards the offensive zone. The days of Therrien’s defensive shackles were over, leading to a Stanley Cup title after just half a season behind the Pens bench.
When Crosby and Malkin on the shelf, however, the onus shifted to the back end’s ability to move pucks quickly, thrusting smooth-skating defencemen like Kris Letang to the forefront. It’s a blueprint that obviously worked.
Bylsma’s outstanding job in 2010-11 landed him the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach, a reflection of the respect he garnered for leading the Crosbyless, Malkinless Pens to the playoffs.
“He put in a system the guys buy into, no matter who steps into the lineup,” Fleury said in a phone interview on Friday. “You can see the results.”
Ray Makes Hay
With long-term contracts to Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal gobbling up a heavy chunk of the payroll, general manager Ray Shero has done a shrewd job of successfully adding talent while been squeezed against the ceiling of the salary cap. Late season acquisitions in his tenure include Chris Kunitz and James Neal, two wingers who will be even more lethal once Malkin and Crosby are back in the lineup at the same time. If anyone figured Shero’s success solely was linked to that of Crosby, one of hockey’s top GMs has proven otherwise.
For Fleury, finding a way to win without Sidney comes down to one key element.
“Our depth,” Fleury said. “When guys go down, others step up. When guys come up from (AHL) Wilkes-Barre, they step right in because they already know our system down there.”
Among the Pens top six scorers: Richard Park and Matt Cooke, names you don’t normally associate with the Art Ross Trophy. But with Sid on the shelf, everybody contributes.
Neal’s The Real Deal
Rarely is there a deal in the modern day NHL in which both teams benefit. But when Shero swapped young puck-moving defenceman Alex Goligoski for young Dallas sniper James Neal, the Stars and the Pens each addressed pressing needs. In terms of the Pens, Neal has carried the offensive load this season, tying Phil Kessel for the NHL lead in goals with nine.
“Nealer’s been really hot,” Fleury said.
Imagine a power play featuring Neal alongside Crosby and Malkin? Could be scary.
With a 7-2 record and a 1.86 goals-against average, Fleury has been in top form since opening night. His goaltending helped the Crosbyless Malkinless Pens get to the playoffs last spring, when they stretched the Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games.
Right now, he’s picked up where he’s left off.
One thing to keep in mind
The popular, most speculated-on return date for Crosby is a home game on Nov. 11.
How good will this team will be when he does come back?