Tuesdays With Stoosh: 2. 8

Friday night.  Pens and Sabres on FSN.  Good way to end a crappy work week and kick off the weekend, especially with Pens-Caps looming on Sunday along with a Steelers-Packers Super Bowl.  
There was a nice buzz around this game.  Their third game since coming out of the All-Star break, the Pens were looking to extend what was a four-game winning streak, all without the services of Crosby and Malkin.  But that was about to change as Geno was making his return to the lineup. He hadn’t played since the Jan. 18 win over Detroit.
It wasn’t a great first twenty minutes for the Pens.  Buffalo got two quick goals and Malkin on the ice for both of them. Whatever, especially when one of them was a fluke bounce off Engelland’s skate. The Pens kept pushing and were getting chances. Geno had some hop with three shots on net in the first.  With the Pens on a powerplay to open the second period, he came out flying again.
And then this…


Maybe it was the moment you saw his legs got pinned awkwardly into the boards, or that second later when he crumbled to the ice and stayed there (was that him yelling at the 0:09 mark?).  By the time you saw him laying there clutching his knee, the Sick Feeling was committing an all-out assault on the pit of your stomach.
The news none of us wanted to hear came Saturday morning, worse than any Saturday morning hangover you’ve ever had.  Torn ACL.  Torn MCL.  Probably looking at surgery.  
Probably out for the year.
If you’re any kind of Pens fan, “out for the year” stopped you dead in your tracks.  If you sat staring at your laptop or Twitter feed for five minutes without moving…hey, we all probably did.  Drinking a fifth of Jack at noon all of sudden sounded like a great idea.  
Son. Of. A. Bitch.
Amazing how quickly things can turn, but this is hockey season.  Nothing is linear.  A hockey season is ebb and flow on every scale.  Shift to shift.  Period to period.  Game to game.  Week to week.  It’s a game built around momentum shifts, and that momentum can change quickly.  In a game, it’s a turnover, a big save or a fight.  In a season, it could be a game, as we saw against Tampa back in November.  It could be a series of games, as we saw with the five-game road trip two years ago right after Bylsma took over.  Or it could be an injury – an isolated collision away from the puck, a knee catching a rut in a morning skate, or a run-of-the-mill engagement in the corner for a loose puck. 
So now what?
Well, within a few hours, the national media vultures descended, looking for the corpse.  The Pens’ Cup hopes were cast to the trash heap.
Can’t say I entirely blame them when you look at this on its surface.  No one knows when Crosby will be back, but it’s looking more and more like it won’t be until sometime in March. Letestu is gone until probably mid-March as well.  Now Malkin.  Those are three of the team’s top four centers and arguably the offense’s three best playmakers.
Yes, the team has been winning without Malkin.  They’ve managed to play very well in Crosby’s absence as well, taking 17 of 26 available standings points in the 13 games they’ve played since he left the lineup. 
And it’s no secret to anyone that Malkin was again struggling this year. In fact, his point-per-game production this year was 0.860, a horribly decline from last year’s 1.14.  Considering that most felt Malkin had slumped last year, he was really off his game this year for whatever reason.  This wasn’t 07-08 Geno, or 08-09 Geno.  There may have been very legitimate reasons for that, as it’s been said for quite some time now that he was playing most of the year with an injury to his left knee (not the one he blew out the other night).
But even with his production down, it’s still not easy for any team to absorb the loss of 25 goals and 65-70 points.  It’s the trickle-down effect on the offense that this has – forcing guys into roles for which they may not be adequately suited.  Some of us wanted to know if Jordan Staal or Max Talbot were capable of centering the top two lines, or if Dustin Jeffrey could handle a top-six forward role.  We’re about to find out.
It’s not that they can’t handle it.  Fleury has remained solid in net since mid-November, and the defense on most nights has come together around him.  That’s a huge help going forward.  Dustin Jeffrey is on the verge of never putting a Wilkes-Barre jersey on again, and he may now be the best natural finisher on the team among the forwards.  Tyler Kennedy has elevated his game as well, to his credit.  Letang and Goligoski continue to generate offense from the bluelines.
The Penguins have the third highest point total in the league with 72.  As a whole, this team has 34 games and lost just 20 – a ridiculous number when you consider that:
= Crosby has missed 13 games in a row, 
= Malkin was in a season-long slump, and
= Staal missed half the season and returned just as Sid went out.  
With 28 games left, they need to play .500 hockey the rest of the way out to reach 100 points.  Barring a horrible collapse here, reaching the playoffs should not be an issue.
As far as burying the team’s playoff chances once they get there, there are two other variables that need to be considered here.
First, before he went out of the lineup, Crosby was treating the scoring race the same way Usain Bolt treats a 100-meter sprint.  If he returns healthy for the playoffs and gets back to that game, all bets are off.  He’ll be healthy.  He’ll be motivated.  He’ll be pretty damn pissed off, too.  We saw last year against Ottawa what can happen when he takes over a playoff series.  I’m not sure how much I’d bet against that.
The other variable, of course, is the little silver lining that came with Evgeni Malkin’s injury, and that’s all the shiny new cap space with which Ray Shero now has to play.  Once Malkin goes on long-term injured reserve, it’s been said Shero is going to have upwards of $7-8 million in extra cap room, and the trade deadline is less than three weeks away.
Assuming ownership and management elect to be buyers at the deadline, we’ve already heard a number of names connected with the Penguins – players from P-A Parenteau of the Islanders to Jarome Iginla, Alexei Kovalev and Brad Richards.  There will probably be a hundred more mentioned between now and Feb. 28 as well.
A few things to remember:
= 95% of the rumors you hear are bullshit. Eklund’s rumors aren’t much more than someone sitting at his PS3 making trades on NHL ’11 and seeing what works.  Same goes for the joke who tweets as “@NHLSourcesSay”.  Know your reliable sources; those two really aren’t.  If it comes from TSN or CBC, it’s probably legitimate.  There are also some good beat writers out there – Aaron Portzline from Columbus, for example.  And Rossi at the deadline is pretty good.  Rely on those sorts of guys.
= Shero is patient. Very patient.
= Shero is almost certainly not going to blow up the long-term core of this team to take on a huge contract.  Crosby, Fleury, Staal, Letang and Orpik aren’t going anywhere.  Despres, Bennett and the first-round pick in this draft won’t be traded unless it’s a huge deal.  For guidance, look at the Hossa trade.  When Shero made that trade in the spring of 2008, it amounted to Hossa and Dupuis for two depth roster players (Army & Christensen)  and two first-round picks – the actual 2008 first rounder and Angelo Esposito, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2007.
= Shero probably won’t take on a ton of cap space beyond this season, but he may take on some depending on what the next couple of weeks reveal about the lineup.  The distribution of cap space can always be reconfigured by trades or other signings during the summer.
= Not saying Shero won’t go out and get an impact name.  He very well may.  It depends on what happens the next few weeks, and what ownership determines is best.  Don’t forget, when the team got Hossa in 2008, he wasn’t really on their radar until about 12:00 noon on Deadline Day, and Lemieux had some input in that move as well.  It went right to the last minute before the deal was done.  Shero’s driving the boat, but ownership has their say as well.  And more often than not, it’s worked out.
The march on the playoffs has begun.  The injury to Malkin and the uncertainty surrounding Crosby has made the Pens the underdog.  Like Derek said the other night, it’s like 2006-07 all over again.
Buckle up.
Welcome to the party, pal.