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A first for Pens: No Crosby or Malkin

by Dan Rosen
NEWARK, N.J. -- The Penguins are going to do something Thursday night they haven't done since Mario Lemieux was still playing. They're going to play a game without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Since Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh at the start of the 2006-07 season the Penguins have played 437 games, regular season and playoffs combined, with at least one of their two world-class centers in the lineup. The streak will end at Prudential Center Thursday against the last-place Devils because both Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee) are back in Pittsburgh.

"I'm sure a lot of people bought tickets to be able to see Crosby and Malkin," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur told "It's a little disappointing for them."

Not for the Devils -- they're more than happy to be gracious hosts to the Penguins even though they don't have Nos. 87 and 71 on the trip.

The Penguins believe they can still make life difficult on the home team, which has won three of its last four games and scored 18 goals in the process. The keys are sticking close to the system and not trying to make up for their losses by individual talent but instead trying to do so as a team.

"They're two great hockey players, but at the same time I think we're a pretty deep team," Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. "We have good players on this team. Even though we're missing the two-headed monster we'll be just fine."

Confidence helps, and the Penguins have plenty of it. They've won their last three contests without Crosby and are 5-0 in games that Malkin has missed this season.

What's to say they can't win without both of them?

"We are a team that focuses on playing defense and prides ourselves in how we play defense," Bylsma said. "That's going to be important to be aware of that tonight."

They should still be able to play strong defense behind tonight's starter, Brent Johnson, but questions about their offensive game -- and their effectiveness on the power play in particular -- remain.

"We're also going to try to maintain as much offensive zone time as we can to be effective," Bylsma said.

The pressure to do that falls heavily on the shoulders of Jordan Staal, who until Jan. 1 hadn't played in more than seven months but does have 3 goals and 6 points in his last three games. The pressure also falls heavily on the shoulders of Chris Kunitz (also 3 goals in the past 3 games) and Dupuis.

"We know we have to do it," Dupuis said.

Another key guy is going to be Mark Letestu, who two days after signing a two-year contract extension will have to try to do his best Crosby impersonation.

Letestu will likely start the game in Crosby's usual spot between Dupuis and Kunitz, a position Malkin had been occupying until his balky knee became too painful to play on. Letestu will also be in Crosby's usual spot on the half wall of the first power play unit and will alternate power-play faceoffs with Staal.

"If you're going to sign an extension you have to live up to what the expectations are with that deal," Letestu said. "Sure, I'm ready to take on a bigger role."

Bylsma seems fairly confident in Letestu. He actually said Letestu is better than Crosby and Malkin at delivering the puck to the net from the half wall.

"There's no pressure involved," Letestu added. "It's a good thing that your coach thinks of you that way. I don't think he's putting me in a bad spot at all. I think he's putting me in a position to succeed."

Dustin Jeffrey, who was recalled Wednesday to take Malkin's place, will spend time on the second power play unit.

"He'll be used on the second unit in the same position Mark Letestu is -- faceoffs, half wall, distributing the puck, getting it to the net," Bylsma said. "He's going to get a pretty good opportunity to show what he can do."

Bylsma could make that a blanket statement about everyone in his lineup. No Crosby and no Malkin means more than just one person will have to step into a new role and become a difference maker for the Penguins.

The Devils certainly don't plan to approach this contest any different than if Malkin and Crosby were in the lineup.

"Listen, we're No. 30 so every team is better than us," Brodeur said. "We can't take a day off because they're missing a couple of superstars. That's a good hockey team. We're not in a position to pick and choose how we're going to play."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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