On Sunday the Pittsburgh Penguins announced Sidney Crosby was the latest player in the NHL to have contracted the mumps. Now, you didn't exactly need to be Dr. Kildare to figure that one out, but this whole thing is just crazy. I've been in the NHL as a player, coach or analyst since 1979 and I've been in professional hockey since 1976. I can't remember a player getting mumps. Ever. How many do we have now?
It's a totally bizarre phenomenon, but in the case of the Penguins, what I think you'll see is another stretch that is just a tribute to the great depth this team has. Crosby has been out the past few games, but this team continues to win, dig deep and get points in the standings. It's difficult to lose one of the best players in the world, but this team has the players to weather that storm. Patric Hornqvist adds to that depth, but guys like Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz will carry Pittsburgh through.
Malkin, specifically, is the key to me. We saw how he can step up in Crosby's absence when Crosby was out for nearly 12 months a few years ago. I'm a big believer that you get out of a player what you believe you can get out of him. If Crosby is gone, I believe the Penguins look at Malkin in a different light. He's the player the puck goes through on a power play. He's the player who double-shifts when the lineup is thin. If you expect more of an elite player you get more out of him. Malkin has historically been a hungrier, nastier player with Crosby out because he knows he needs to fill that void. I expect we'll see more of the same.
A NEW DAY IN COLUMBUS
If we've learned anything in the past week, it's the brutal start for the Columbus Blue Jackets this season was definitely because of their injuries. I can't remember a team getting hit as badly as those guys. Ryan Johansen didn't have training camp, Boone Jenner, whom many expect to be a leader of this team going forward, was out. Nathan Horton may never play again. Brandon Dubinsky was out. Sergei Bobrovsky was out. Artem Anisimov was out. James Wisniewski was out. Nobody could overcome that many injuries, but this is a team that worked hard and played tough the entire time even though it lacked the manpower.
Now those players are coming back and this team looks like the team we saw give Pittsburgh a scare in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. They're physical, they're tough, they're scoring goals, Bobrovsky looks like the player that is always contending for the Vezina Trophy, and defensively they're rock solid and competing. Suddenly Columbus has won six games in a row and might be the hottest team in the NHL.
What's more is the Blue Jackets are making this race interesting. They seemed destined for a high draft pick just a month ago, but now they've got a chance to crawl back into the playoff race. I think it'll be tough to crack that top eight because we have so many three-point games. Columbus will essentially need to defeat every team above it in the standings in regulation when they play. That's no picnic. But for the time being the Blue Jackets have made it clear they won't be forgotten. Columbus is going to be a factor in the East, either as a contender or a spoiler, the rest of the way.
BACKING IT UP
I've noticed some interesting decisions lately when it comes to how coaches are managing their goaltenders, namely backup goalies like the New Jersey Devils' Keith Kinkaid or the Toronto Maple Leafs' James Reimer. Neither of those guys play very much, and each came in and picked up points against tough opponents this past week. In New Jersey's case, Kinkaid was in net against the Chicago Blackhawks one night after Cory Schneider faced the Carolina Hurricanes. It was Kinkaid's second start of the season and some might think it wiser to put your top goalie against stiffer competition in back-to-back situations, but the thought process seems to be different now.
Schneider faced the Carolina Hurricanes in hopes of locking up two points instead of taking them for granted and risking a loss because your backup let in a soft goal or just wasn't up to the task. Then Kinkaid comes in against a Stanley Cup contender and has a phenomenal night, making 37 saves on 39 shots and stealing a point for New Jersey in a shootout loss. It's an interesting question: Do you play your backup against teams you're not supposed to beat because there's no big deal in dropping points you aren't expected to get anyway?
If I were coaching today, this is probably the strategy I'd take. You can't start your No. 1 goalie 82 times so you have to pick and choose where he gets his rest. In this case I think Devils coach Peter DeBoer played it right. When I was coaching, I had to make sure I got the points we were supposed to get. At the end of the game, if I'm sitting in my office and a poorer team defeated us because my backup let in a softie I'd be beating my head against the wall. Losing points you should get is almost always a coaching mistake. It will be interesting to see if most teams in the League start to follow suit.