Beating the President’s Trophy winners and the team with the best record coming out of the regular season without superstar Sidney Crosby and playmaker Conor Sheary is going to be no small feat, especially in a heated rivalry matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Washington Capitals, coming off a giant overtime win in Game 3, finally have some momentum swinging in their direction, and with the flurry of new and potentially series-changing injuries, every hockey fan in the country can tell you that these two casualties to the lineup don’t bode well for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But like the immediate, gloomy reaction people had with losing defenseman Kris Letang to a season-ending neck injury, those same dramatic fair-weather fans and media analysts are already saying Washington is, without a doubt, going to come back and win three of the remaining four games simply because Crosby can’t play for the what might be the rest of the series. Emotions are high yet again, possibly even higher than when Letang was ruled out, and a lot of followers of the Penguins are pretty upset with the actions that led to Sid’s current setback (Expect a very unpleasant cold shoulder for Matt Niskanen from angry Pittsburghers come Wednesday night).
But instead of focusing solely on the negative things to happen to this Penguins team, folks might want to start celebrating how lucky they are to still have superstar talent on the roster that’s both healthy and ready to avenge the heartbreaking OT loss in Game 3, especially after battling back in incredible fashion. I know I sound like a broken record, but this team, damaged as they are, is still more than capable of splitting the final four games of this series with the Capitals. It took losing Pittsburgh’s best player, and arguably the best player in the world, a playmaker in Sheary, and the addition of an extra 20 minute period after botching the 2-0 lead in the final minutes of the third for the Capitals to beat this “battered” team.
Even without Crosby, offensive-minded guys like Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hornqvist (a heckler for Braden Holtby) are elite players who will undoubtedly take Crosby’s workload and spread it out amongst the bench. Hell, even Chris Kunitz is turning heads and making tough plays. It’s that kind of attitude that will lessen the stress of losing Sid.
From that aforementioned list, Malkin is a powerful player that really stands out. Tonight’s bout will be only the second time he’s played in a postseason game without Crosby in the lineup, dating back to the 2013 playoffs. The good news for Head Coach Mike Sullivan and the Penguins is that the Russian forward enters beast mode in Crosby’s absence and has played some of his best hockey when Pittsburgh is desperate to fill the gaping hole in in the team’s top forward line.
In the first game of the playoff series versus the Islanders back in 2013, Malkin suited up and had a favorable performance without 87, proving he’s still productive with two assists in a 5-0 win. But this isn’t the only time Malkin has shown his prestige when Crosby’s out of the lineup. In the 117 career games Malkin has faced the challenge, he’s tallied 66 goals and 88 helpers — a respectful 1.32 points per game average. This is reassuring because when Crosby is present and leading the top line, Malkin drops his productivity just slightly to an average of 1.15 points per game. It’s clear that losing Crosby doesn’t hinder him; it’s his motivation.
The way he elevates his game offensively will prove that a team with such talent and depth like this should never be counted out. This is arguably the most perfect player to take the leadership reigns while the Captain reclaims his health in the suites of PPG Paints Arena in a suit and tie.
Game 4 has elements that confirm it’s a pivotal moment for each of these teams, but how the Penguins recover from their unfortunate luck will decide the mood of this series going forward. If the Capitals throw another barrage at Pittsburgh tonight, which they will, I fully expect the Pens to weather it. They’re veterans, their emotions are high, and they’re going to be fighting for their Captain.