Crosby's absence hurting Penguins

With their backs against the wall, the Pittsburgh Penguins could use their captain right about now....

With their backs against the wall, the Pittsburgh Penguins could use their captain right about now. (Darryl Dyck/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:48 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- It has been both an unspoken and obvious question since the playoffs began: Can the Pittsburgh Penguins win a seven-game series without Sidney Crosby?

For a while there, when Pittsburgh opened up a 3-1 lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the answer seemed clear: No Sid, no sweat.

But with a power-play gone missing, suspect goaltending (it's a Pennsylvania thing) and a determined and talented opponent, it will take a win in Game 7 Wednesday night at the Consol Energy Center for them to advance.

Until now, the Penguins have been stoic in their attitude about missing their captain and leader, fuelled by a late-season run that earned them home ice for the deciding game against the Lightning.

Until this point, the Penguins were confident that a tight-checking system based on patience and opportunity could work.

"Everybody misses him, not only me," said defenceman Kris Letang, who was putting up career numbers before Crosby was knocked from the lineup with a concussion in early January. "Our team. Our coach. Our organization.

"He's the best player in the world, what are you going to expect? Everybody needs him."

There, somebody finally said it.

Barring a devious sleight of hand, the Penguins won't get him in time for Game 7, when the Pens try to close out the pesky Lightning for a third consecutive time.

Coach Dan Bylsma said yet again, after an optional practice on Wednesday, there is no change in the status of Crosby, who has been skating with the team for several weeks, but has not been cleared for contact. There remains widespread speculation he could return sometime in the playoffs, but one more loss and it won't matter.

It's more than just the absence of Crosby and offensive running-mate Evgeni Malkin that has put the Pens in this predicament, of course.

For one, the remaining "superstar," Marc-Andre Fleury, continues to cast doubt on his status as a "franchise" goaltender, particularly with his play in the past couple of games. The bloom was off the Flower after he let in four goals on the first 14 shots he faced Saturday and was yanked. He certainly wasn't quick with the game-saving stops in Monday's Game 6 in Tampa either.

The Lightning are also proving that under the stewardship of rookie general manager Steve Yzerman and first-year coach Guy Boucher, they are a serious team with considerable upside.

The deeper this one has gone, the more the absence of Crosby, and to a lesser extent Malkin, has helped define it. Early in the series, it looked like the Penguins could get by following the tight defensive scheme cooked up by Bylsma.

The trouble with that strategy, however, is that Boucher has matched wits with his Pittsburgh counterpart as the Lightning have bought into his act. Those things being equal, the Lightning have the added benefit of having more firepower up front, with players such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.

In the past two games -- both of which had Tampa facing elimination -- the Lightning outscored the Pens 12-4. It's apparent where the momentum lies now.

"Every series and every game has its own and separate emotions," Bylsma said Tuesday. "We have to deal with what we've gone through, having gone up 3-1 and lost the last two.

"They have won two games and have some momentum and are coming back to a building where they have had some success in this playoff series."

The lack of success for the Penguins has come in areas where Crosby routinely makes a positive impact. Take the power play, which has connected just once in 30 chances and been plagued by poor faceoffs, a lack of traffic in front of the Tampa net and difficulty moving the puck into the offensive zone.

It's hard to imagine No. 87 not making a profound difference in all of those areas.

Like they have since Jan. 4, however, it looks like the Penguins will have to make do without him.


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