It’s never an easy process for an NHL team when a superstar is sidelined for a significant period of time due to injury. Sure, the management and the roster may preach the “next man up” mentality, but there’s no simple manner when it comes to replacing his impact and leadership in an identical fashion.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are well-versed in overcoming this obstacle, as forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have had their fair share of ailments over the past several seasons. Oddly enough, they’ve come at different intervals throughout their careers.
In fact, Crosby and Malkin have played 65+ games together in only two seasons since the 2009-10 campaign.
Since battling concussion problems that begun at the 2011 Winter Classic, Crosby has stayed healthy as of late. He has averaged 76 games played (including his current total of 71 this season) in the past three years as opposed to averaging a mere 33 games over the three seasons prior to that.
Malkin, on the other hand, reached at least 70 games played in each of first three seasons in the National Hockey League. Since then, he’s accomplished that feat once, which was in 2011-12 (75 GP).
That includes this year, when the Russian forward was told on March 12th that he would be expected to miss 6-8 weeks with an upper-body injury (to his left arm/wrist, specifically). He had played 57 out of the team’s 67 games up to that point.
Malkin’s injury hasn’t seemed to bother Crosby in the slightest, who has scored nine points in five games during his absence. The Penguins captain is currently on a 12-game point streak and stands solely at number three in the Art Ross race with 76 points.
So, what gives? How has #87 kept up his rampant scoring pace without Malkin in the lineup? The first answer to that question doesn’t pertain to Crosby, but Malkin’s replacement on the second line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel: Nick Bonino.
He may not provide the firepower that Malkin possesses, but the 27-year-old has stepped up with his fundamentals. Bonino has been controlling the dot at 50 percent or above in four of his last five games. Quick outlets to his wingers and keeping the play alive in the offensive zone wreaks havoc on the opposition’s stamina who thought they only had to focus on the top line of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist.
This translates into a more consistent possession game, which had plagued the Penguins long before the coaching change from Mike Johnston to current bench boss Mike Sullivan. Crosby was scrutinized immensely during a slow start that resulted in the firing of Johnston but has let his play provide the commentary since the All-Star break. With 14 goals and 21 assists in his last 24 games, the critics who dubbed him “washed up” seem to have been silenced.
In the process, Sullivan’s coaching style has allowed Crosby to play his game to his strengths. He’s crashing the net more often, where several of his goals throughout the duration of his point streak have come from. Crosby’s also been ferocious around the goal line and is making sure that he’s winning 50/50 puck battles along the boards. His play without the puck, breaking up odd-man rushes and creating turnovers, has been equally as impressive as his offensive prominence.
Crosby has single-handedly rewritten the script on the Penguins season. He’s taken them from a borderline wildcard team to a Stanley Cup contender, even without Malkin. Every team in the NHL is fighting for something at this point of the year, whether it’s a playoff position or their jobs moving forward. There’s no easy points going down the stretch in this league. Yet, the Penguins hold a six-game winning streak after their 6-2 drubbing of the top team in the NHL (and Metropolitan Division leader), the Washington Capitals.
Crosby has the fans, the locker room and the ownership group motivated, all hoping to see a fourth Stanley Cup added to the storied organization’s repertoire. He’s even played so well as to have his name uttered in the Hart Trophy conversation, going on an absolute scoring tear when it matters most.
Because that’s what a leader does.