Very much present were the resiliency and defensive consistency the Penguins continue to display, even against an opponent that repeatedly frustrated them the last two seasons.
The Penguins, playing a wearying third game in four nights without their stars, turned another goal by James Neal, a strong game in net by Marc-Andre Fleury and a lockdown defense into a 3-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
Malkin, Crosby and Kennedy were hurt and Letang sat out the second game of a two-game boarding suspension, yet the Penguins had more than enough offense and defense to throttle the Canadiens, who are off to a 1-4-1 start.
"No Sid, no Geno, but we just play the right way," said Neal, who has six goals in six games and seven overall. "We go north with the puck, we play quick, we shoot the puck as much as possible and go to the net. When you're doing the right things and playing with speed, you know you're a tough team to play against."
Joe Vitale, another player excelling in a larger-than-expected role, and Arron Asham also scored as the NHL's busiest team improved to 5-2-2 while playing its ninth game in 15 days. No Penguins team has started a season with more games in fewer days.
So many games have meant so little practice, yet the Penguins have picked up at least a point in all but two games during a start made all the more impressive by who isn't in their lineup.
At least some help is finally arriving. Defenseman Brooks Orpik (sports hernia) and center Dustin Jeffrey (knee) came back earlier than predicted from injuries that had sidelined them all season, lengthening what was becoming a very short bench for coach Dan Bylsma.
Helped by their return, the NHL's top penalty-killing unit shut down all four Montreal power plays and now is 30 of 31 for the season.
Just as important -- the Penguins didn't allow the Canadiens to generate any speed or odd-man rushes, constantly controlling the puck against defenders who grew increasingly weary trying to chase it down.
"We made it easier on ourselves by playing in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "That's the way to play defense – in the offensive zone."
Orpik added, "Different guys are doing good jobs and, collectively, they're doing it together."
All of which might explain why Pittsburgh is a surprising 28-15-7 in its last 50 games without Crosby and 22-13-5 in its last 40 without Crosby and Malkin.
Fleury made 27 saves, including a key stop of Mathieu Darche's shorthanded breakaway early in the first, but Brian Gionta scored with 1:36 remaining to deny the goalie a 20th career shutout. Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who failed to get his 100th career victory, stopped 29 of 32 shots.
Canadiens left wing Michael Cammalleri returned after sitting out three games with a leg laceration, probably because – with 10 goals in his last 10 games against the Penguins, counting the playoffs – he didn't want any game against them. But he also couldn't generate much offense for a team that has confounded coach Jacques Martin by being held to one goal or less in four of six games.
"The last two games we created a lot of scoring chances, but tonight our execution wasn't there," Martin said. "When you don't win your individual battles, it's a tough night out there."
Cammalleri believes the slumping Canadiens need to get back to being, well, the Canadiens – and soon.
"We seem to be squeezing the sticks a little bit," he said. "I'd like to see us stick-handle a bit, handle the puck a little bit and make some tape-to-tape passes. That's where it all starts, and we weren't really doing that."
Montreal, which played the final two-plus periods without center Scott Gomez (upper-body injury), has converted only two of 25 power plays all season – another major problem. Martin did not elaborate on Gomez's injury and listed him as day to day.
Montreal defenseman Hal Gill, who won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, received a standing ovation for playing in his 1,000th career game. But he was upstaged by former Canadien forward Asham, who scored his first goal since Jan. 6 in Montreal – and in his 700th career game.
With the Penguins already up 2-0, Asham batted the rebound of Deryk Engelland's shot past Price 5:20 into another disappointing third period for the Canadiens, who won three of four from Pittsburgh last season, including both games in Pittsburgh. The season before that, they upset the reigning Stanley Cup champion Penguins in a seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinals series.
Neal, who's generating the kind of scoring the Penguins were hoping he'd produce when he finally got to play on a line with Crosby or Malkin, provided a good start by getting the opening goal at 8:55 of the first period. He passed the puck from the right point to behind the net, then grabbed the giveback pass and banked a pinball of a shot off defenseman Josh Gorges' leg, a post and Price's back.
"It's just a tough break, but we've got to be able to bounce back from stuff like that," Price said.
Neal is making up for some of that offense the Penguins lack without Malkin (right knee), who has played in only three games, and Crosby (concussion), who has been out since early January but is practicing again.
Vitale, who wasn't a lock to make the roster when training camp began, scored his first goal since Feb. 11 by redirecting Engelland's shot from the right point at 2:38 of the second. Engelland had two assists in his first career multi-point game after going scoreless in his first eight games.
"I'm not sure we envisioned a two-assist night from Deryk Engelland," Bylsma said.
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