The elephant inside Pittsburgh's dressing room was hard to miss, only because the two giants weren't there to shield it.
There were the Penguins on Feb. 5, wondering how in the world they were going to make do without Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
-- perhaps for the rest of the season. Crosby already had missed 12 games with concussion symptoms, and now Malkin was done for the season with two torn ligaments in his right knee.
"You expect, I don't want to say panic, but definitely some uncertainty going forward about how we're going to do this," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin
told NHL.com. "You would never expect to keep winning."
The road hasn't exactly been smooth, but the Penguins have been able to steer clear of the tailspin that predictably happens when superstars go out of the lineup. The reason, Martin said, is because no one in the locker room ever said it wasn't possible to win without Crosby and Malkin. No one ever even discussed the possibility that the Penguins' season was heading south.
The Penguins are 13-9-4 since Crosby last played Jan. 5. They're 5-6-4 since Malkin went out, but they've won their last two games and have points in five straight. They've adjusted without their stars and several other injured players by relying on their system and defensive principles to remain in the hunt for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
As of Friday Pittsburgh was fourth in the conference with 86 points, just four behind the first-place Flyers.
"I think that's the surprising part, that no one has even said anything, no matter who is in or out, like, 'This is it,' or, 'Just hang in there.' It's all been positive," Martin said. "We expect to win no matter who is in the lineup and our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. No one has ever said, 'We're missing these two guys so, just do the best you can,' or, 'It's going to be tough.' It has never been addressed."
Martin credits the Penguins' coaching staff, led by the enthusiastic and optimistic Dan Bylsma
, for the team's approach. They never stopped expecting wins, and that filtered down to the players.
"If they give out the panic or they start to go about their business in a different way than they normally would, than players can say it starts with them, but they haven't and the guys have relied on the system to do their job," Martin said. "Guys are stepping up. Not that we've been lighting it up, but finding a way to win keeps us right near the top."
He's right about the Penguins' offense, which most assumed was going to take the biggest hit without Crosby and Malkin there to set the pace. In the 15 games since Malkin's season-ending knee injury the Penguins are scoring almost a full goal per game less than they were in the 53 prior games (2.07 vs. 3.02).
However, except for the 14 goals they gave up in back-to-back games against the Islanders and Rangers a month ago, their stingy defense and superior penalty kill has remained consistent since early November.
Pittsburgh's numbers since Malkin's injuries are skewed because of that lost weekend in New York, but in the other 13 games it is allowing 2.54 goals per game and is at 85.4 percent on the penalty kill. The Penguins were giving up 2.47 goals per game and their PK was successful 87.1 percent of the time before Malkin went out.
Considering the Penguins also lead the League in penalty minutes and total times shorthanded, their high success rate on the penalty kill says a lot.
"We've been trying to play defense in Pittsburgh since I got here in '09 and maybe that hasn't been the perception," Bylsma said on NHL Live! this week. "It's easy to get misguided and misled when you have Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
, but we've paid as much attention and taken as much pride in working as a defensive team. You're seeing that now this year. Our guys have been outstanding. Marc-Andre Fleury
is having a great season, but we take great pride in defending and our penalty kill. We're getting some credit for that now and we're getting credit for our work ethic. Now you're seeing that as the identity of our team."
General Manager Ray Shero
deserves credit, too. He addressed the Penguins' need for better defense in the offseason by signing Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
, and entrusting Kris Letang
with bigger minutes by not re-signing Sergei Gonchar
With Brooks Orpik
already a centerpiece of the blue line, Pittsburgh was set up this season to make defense a priority, something it obviously has become. The Penguins, in fact, have been able to withstand an injury to Orpik because their defensive approach has become so ingrained in the team's system of play.
"Guys realize the importance of not spending as much time in our zone as possible, especially when we don't have the guys that you know you're going to get one or two points from every night," Martin said. "The forwards have committed to helping out and that's just the type of guys we have. The guys are going to do what it takes, the small things, chipping pucks up, taking a hit -- things not every guy wants to do."
Shero set up his defense so well that late last month he was able to send one of his core blueliners, Alex Goligoski
, to Dallas in a trade for some offense. James Neal
, who Shero acquired from the Stars along with defenseman Matt Niskanen
for Goligoski, eases some of the offensive burden from players like Pascal Dupuis
and Maxime Talbot
, who aren't accustomed to handling a big offensive load.
also was acquired, for a seventh-round draft pick, to pick up some of the offensive slack.
Kovalev and Neal still are in the feeling-out process with the Penguins' system, but getting them "definitely helps the swagger up front for us to feel we're right back in the mix," Martin said.
And what if Crosby returns at some point this season?
"It's almost like we'd be acquiring a new guy," Martin said. "We're just waiting to hear some good news, but we get ready to play no matter what. When your role players are helping you win games it says a lot about your team."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl