|Superstar Evgeni Malkin took his game to another level when captain Sidney Crosby was sidelined with a high ankle sprain.
The Penguins also won their first Atlantic Division title, holding off charges from New Jersey and the New York Rangers.
The first step in the continued progress in Pittsburgh was the naming of Crosby as team captain May 31.
“I try to lead by example,” said Crosby, the youngest captain in League history. “I don’t think I try to put it solely on my shoulders. As captain, you have to take responsibility, of course, but at the end of the day, it’s a team sport. There are a lot of guys I can lean on for advice or help in that area. It takes a team to win. It takes responsibility to be a captain and you’re looked upon to lead on and off the ice every day. That is something that I think I am ready to do.”
The Penguins were a trendy Stanley Cup pick to start the season, but they got off to a sour start, sitting 11-10-2 at Thanksgiving.
It got worse on Dec. 6, when goalie Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a high ankle sprain.
Fleury’s injury, though, was lost in the circus that became Crosby’s first NHL trip to Western Canada, a three-game, four-day tour that saw Crosby greeted like visiting royalty.
"I wasn't sure if the president was in town or Sidney Crosby when we arrived at the hotel in Edmonton,” said veteran forward Gary Roberts. “But he does a great job handling it well.”
Crosby and his teammates returned a tired bunch, and it showed Dec. 11 in an 8-2 loss to a Philadelphia Flyers team the Penguins had beaten throughout last season.
A footnote that night was the season debut of goalie Ty Conklin, who had been recalled from the AHL when Fleury was injured. He replaced Dany Sabourin and allowed three goals on 15 shots. He went back to the bench for three more games, but with Sabourin foundering, coach Michel Therrien gave Conklin the start. He responded with 41 saves in a 5-4 shootout win against Boston. Two games later, Conklin was back in net, and the Pens won again. It was the beginning of a magical ride for the journeyman goalie.
Since the lockout, Conklin had played for three NHL and three AHL teams before landing in Pittsburgh. But in the Steel City, he turned into a star, winning his first nine starts, including the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day in Buffalo. Conklin stopped 36 shots in that nationally televised outdoor game as the Penguins emerged with a 2-1 shootout victory.
Crosby, the pre-game star of the Winter Classic show, lived up to the billing with several highlight moves, and he capped the spectacular day with the game-winning goal in the shootout.
“It’s like a Tiger Woods scene,” Conklin told NHL.com that day. “I don’t think you can call this thing anything but a huge success, and certainly that definitely capped it off.”
The New Year’s Day win sparked the Penguins, but the flame nearly was snuffed out.
On Jan. 18, Crosby fell feet-first into the boards in the first period of a game against Tampa Bay, suffering a high right ankle sprain. Tied for the League scoring lead at the time, it was expected he would miss as long as two months.
"Obviously, it is a huge loss," Therrien told reporters that night. "There is no team that can deal with losing the best player in the League. He is the heart of the team and he is our leader."
Rather than fall into the giant hole left by the absence of No. 87, another star rose in Crosby’s place.
Evgeni Malkin already was having a fine sophomore season, but he turned up the dial in Crosby’s absence. He delivered 14 goals and 36 points in the 21 games the captain missed as the Pens went 11-6-4 and climbed into the battle for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles.
“You can’t say enough about him right now,” teammate Ryan Malone said of Malkin. “He’s definitely getting the attention. We all knew he was a great player, but with Sid out, he’s under the microscope a little more so people are actually seeing how talented he is.”
Malkin vaulted into the race for the scoring title as well as League MVP. If Malkin follows Crosby in winning both awards, they would become the third set of teammates to win the Art Ross and Hart trophies in consecutive seasons, joining Boston’s Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr (1969-70) and Chicago’s Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita (1966-67).
The season also saw the first physical step in a long-overdue new home for the Penguins, as a former hospital building was imploded March 22, clearing the site where the club plans to build its new facility.
With Crosby’s late-season return, the Penguins are geared up for the next step in rebuilding hockey in Pittsburgh.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.