Crosby will sit out his sixth consecutive game Tuesday when the Penguins oppose the Chicago Blackhawks, who went into the night's play with a five-game winning streak and an NHL-best 46 points. Pittsburgh, by contrast, dropped four of five games before beating Buffalo 8-3 on Saturday behind Evgeni Malkin's seventh career hat trick and five-point game.
The Penguins are 13-9-3 this season without Crosby, who has missed all but eight of their last 74 games dating to the first week of January. Crosby, coincidentally, has played only two career games against the Blackhawks, none since he last opposed them on Feb. 14, 2007.
Since they owned a 10-3-3 record following a 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Nov. 11, the Penguins are 8-8-1 and haven't won more than two games in a row. That stretch includes the eight games Crosby played from Nov. 21-Dec. 5.
Regardless, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Pittsburgh remains a circle-the-calendar game on any team's schedule, Crosby or no Crosby.
"If you look around their team, they're finding ways across the board to contribute to what makes them successful. In our League, you got to be respectful of anybody and it's still a good team over there." -- Joel Quenneville on the Penguins' roster minus Sidney Crosby
The Penguins could get a lift with the expected return of center Jordan Staal, who sat out three of the last four games with a lower-body injury. Staal's size and defensive skills would be an asset against Chicago's stable of scorers, including Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane.
“Jordan Staal has been an absolute leader for our team this year,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He has been dealing with a bit of an injury the last week or so, but he's really stepped up on the ice, where he's been very good, and off the ice in the dressing room.”
The Penguins are 36-22-8 without Crosby over the last 12 months, a record that Quenneville considers to be admirable -- and a tribute to Bylsma's ability to extract the maximum from his roster. The Penguins already have used 32 players, including nearly every defenseman who plays regularly at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).
They've needed every one of them due to the extended injury layoffs of a number of players, among them Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Ben Lovejoy, Brooks Orpik and Tyler Kennedy. Now, defenseman Paul Martin (lower-body injury) has been added to the list.
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“Where they're at is a compliment to the way they play and the way they're coached,” Quenneville said.
Because Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero implemented a system in which their minor league teams play the same way offensively and defensively as the Penguins do, they believe it is easier for newly recalled players to feel comfortable from the start.
“When guys come up from Wilkes-Barre, they have a chance for success because they expect the standard in that room (to be high); it's what the guys demand,” Bylsma said. “They also know what to do and how to do it.”
On Saturday, for example, veteran forward Jason Williams -- who has spent most of this season at Wilkes-Barre -- had a goal and an assist and defenseman Carl Sneep, playing in his first NHL game, made an excellent up-the-ice pass off the boards to create one of Malkin's goals.
“They've gone through quite a group of guys with everyone being hurt, but looking at their last game, they worked, they played the perfect team game,” Quenneville said. “They play hard, so there's not a lot of time and space. We want to be smart on how we go about this game. It's going to be a hard game for us, but there's a lot of respect for what they've gone through.”
Bylsma, who has had a full roster at his disposal only a handful of times since the end of the 2009-10 season, probably wishes he didn't need to improvise so often. Last season, for example, Staal missed all but one game in the first half of the season and Crosby sat out every game in the second half.
Still, Bylsma coaxed 106 points out of his team, tying for the second most in franchise history. As a result, he won the Jack Adams Award that is presented to the NHL coach of the year.
“If the reason (for winning it) was because of the injuries, then I wish it would go away,” Bylsma said.