PITTSBURGH -- The Colorado Avalanche are taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time in nine months, but two key factors haven't changed going into the interconference matchup.
Sidney Crosby isn't playing, yet the Penguins remain a very difficult opponent even without their world-class center.
Since Crosby sustained a concussion during the first week of January, the Penguins are 33-17-8. They have gotten at least one point in 41 of 58 games, even while being without the player who was easily leading the NHL in scoring at this time last season.
Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said the Penguins are capable of being just as impressive, from a team concept standpoint, as they are when the former Hart Memorial Trophy and Art Ross Trophy winner is in the lineup.
"This team rolls along, they don't miss a beat, and they've done that for a year and a half now with the injuries they've had," Sacco said. "They've figured things out, how to get by without some of their top players. He's not the only guy missing, but certainly he's the key."
Since the 2010-11 season began, the Penguins have played only two games with all three of their top centers – Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal -- yet they are 59-29-11 during that span. Staal missed the first half of 2010-11 with a foot injury and broken hand.
Pittsburgh also was without Malkin (right knee) for half of last season and seven games of this season.
The key to Pittsburgh's success without its stars, according to forward Matt Cooke, is a determination to play with the same intensity, preparation and commitment to a system that has worked no matter who is in the lineup.
"If we play out our game plan, we're going to have success -- regardless of what the other team does," Cooke said.
Defenseman Alexandre Picard, who played for Montreal last season, is impressed with how the same system used in Pittsburgh is implemented at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).
Penguins general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma require that organization-wide uniformity so that a player such as Picard can be exposed in the minors to the same power-play unit, penalty-killing unit and offensive and defensive systems they will play in Pittsburgh.
"Even down there, it's the same thing, it's the mentality of the organization," Picard said. "It doesn't matter who you are or how many minutes you play, the coaching staff expects something out of you. Whether you're Sidney Crosby or Joe Vitale, they expect the same thing."
That doesn't mean that Picard isn't eager for Crosby to rejoin the Penguins -- and perhaps soon. Picard opposed the Penguins and Crosby while with Montreal, Philadelphia and Ottawa, so he can't wait to have him on his own team.
Like his other teammates, Picard sees daily in practice how Crosby appears to have recaptured all of his offensive skills despite being out more than 10 months with a concussion. The earliest that Crosby could play is Thursday at Tampa Bay.
"He's the best player in the world, so obviously when he comes back it's going to be a huge boost," Picard said. "But you still want guys to play the same way that we're playing now, and not hold back anything just because he’s back."
While Crosby won't play -- just as he didn't during the Penguins' 3-2 overtime victory at Colorado on Feb. 16 -- the Avalanche-Penguins matchup features the NHL's top power-play unit against its best penalty-killing unit.
Colorado's power play is converting at a 27.1 percent success rate (17 of 55), while the Penguins have permitted only 3 power-play goals in 50 attempts, a 94-percent kill rate.
"They have a simplistic approach," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the Avalanche's power play. "They get the puck to the net. They get the shot up top. Then they have skilled players with a unit anchored by (captain Milan) Hejduk."
Bylsma also said, "They have skill, movement, they hunt pucks down, (they) have a big shot from the point. They've had success in a lot of different ways. They haven't gotten it one way. It's not a one-dimensional power play. They are relentless."