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Healthy Crosby, capable call-ups propelled Penguins

by Adam Kimelman

It didn't seem to matter who was in the lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins, or how many key players were on the injured list -- and on most nights there were a lot.

Through all the issues the Penguins continued to win, and Friday they became the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That spot in the postseason is just the first step for a team with aspirations of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009.

That can't happen until June. For now, here are five reasons the Penguins were able to punch their ticket to the postseason for the eighth consecutive season:

1. Steady Sidney

The last few seasons had seen Sidney Crosby become as much of a story for the games he missed than what he did when he actually played. But for the first time in his career, Crosby is on pace to play all 82 games in a season; he's already played more than 70 for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

With that availability has come productivity. Crosby began the season with points in eight straight games and hasn't slowed much. He's led the League in points for the entire season, and only three times has he gone consecutive games without a point. He's also produced regardless of who's been on his line, from usual linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz to trade-deadline pickup Lee Stempniak and minor-league call-up Brian Gibbons.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is biased, but when asked who the most valuable player in the League is he didn't hesitate to say Crosby. "I don't think there's any question," Bylsma said. "This season I don't think it's even close. I think there's no question. I think he's skating away with it."

2. Strong net presence

One major question looming over the Penguins at the start of the season was what the future would hold for Marc-Andre Fleury after a second straight playoff meltdown. Things got even more dicey when veteran backup Tomas Vokoun was diagnosed with blood clots in his pelvis during training camp.

Rather than pursue a veteran to split time with Fleury, the Penguins opted to start the season with rookie Jeff Zatkoff, who never had played above the American Hockey League.

Fleury has answered every doubter in the regular season, as his 35 wins are tied for third in the League, his five shutouts are tied for second and he has a very respectable 2.35 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.

Zatkoff has proven to be a more than useful backup, going 12-5-1 in 18 games, and has wins against the Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings.

3. No excuses

It only seems like every story about the Penguins this season has been about them losing another key player to injury. It's added up to more than 450 man-games lost to injury. Through it all, however, who was missing from the lineup never was used as an excuse.

And it wasn't just minor players missing time. The Penguins have played 14 games with their top two lines intact -- Sidney Crosby between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, and Evgeni Malkin centering James Neal and Jussi Jokinen. Of that group, only Crosby and Jokinen have played every game. Dupuis sustained a season-ending knee injury Dec. 23; Neal missed most of the first month of the season with an upper-body injury and has been sidelined by a concussion and a suspension. Malkin missed time earlier this season with a lower-body injury and currently is out at least two weeks and possibly until the start of the playoffs with a broken foot.

The defense also has been victimized. The projected top four of Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin has played together for a total of seven games: twice in October and five games in late January. Martin is out with a hand injury sustained at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and Letang's return at any point is questionable after he had a stroke in January.

Despite all those missing key parts, the Penguins just chugged along.

"It's something we've been dealing with all year and we've found ways," Crosby said. "So we have to look at that and understand that's something we've got to continue to do. Now is definitely not the time to make excuses. We didn't all year and we're definitely not going to start now."

4. Call-ups stepping up

All the injuries have led to a good portion of the team's American Hockey League lineup seeing time in the NHL. Forward Jayson Megna has been recalled five times and skated on all four lines. Gibbons at times played in a top-six forward role.

On Dec. 16, the Penguins went into a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs with three rookie defensemen (Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson) and two others who had fewer than 62 games of NHL experience each in Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo. Despite all that inexperience, the Penguins won that night.

They've also gotten major contributions from minor-league call-ups up front. Gibbons, Megna and Zach Sill all played their first NHL games this season after spending at least one full season in the minors, and more experienced hands like Harry Zolnierczyk, Andrew Ebbett and Chris Conner also have stepped in ably.

For Bylsma, it's been a "next man up" philosophy.

"We have capable guys going in, guys who have done well for us before," Bylsma said. "We have to find ways to be able to win and be effective in those roles regardless of who's going in there."

5. Special teams have been very special

While the Penguins have been solid at 5-on-5, their special teams have been among the best in the League.

The Penguins entered Saturday with the League's second-best power play at 23.4 percent. They're also one of two teams (the Washington Capitals are the other) to rank in the top five in the League with the man-advantage at home (third, 24.0) and on the road (fifth, 22.8).

The Penguins also have the fourth-best penalty kill in the League at 85.4 percent. That's a marked improvement from last season, when they were 25th. Part of that comes from allowing fewer opposition power plays; they're facing 3.1 power plays per game this season, down from 3.5 per game last season.


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