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Penguins banking on Crosby, Malkin returns

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- The defensemen they added made them better, as did the succession of productive players they brought up from the minors. All the Pittsburgh Penguins were missing to advance deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it seems, were a couple of scorers.

General manager Ray Shero said Friday he knows where to find them, too. A couple of guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Shero expects both Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee surgery) to fully recover from season-ending injuries during what now becomes an extended offseason, and to resume their careers next fall.

The Penguins had one of the NHL's best records before Crosby and Malkin were hurt a month apart at midseason, and remained that way even after playing without them for months. Surprisingly, they went into the final few days of the season with a chance to win the Atlantic Division.

"I think we surprised a lot of people. We definitely had a lot of injuries, missing some key guys, and our captain. I'm proud of the way the team played, still battling for first place (in the conference) there at the end." -- Marc-Andre Fleury

While the Penguins successfully traversed February and March despite averaging only slightly more than two goals per game, beating a team as offensively skilled as the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs proved too difficult without a go-to scorer.

After being up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and in position to reach the second round for a fourth consecutive season, the Penguins were limited to four goals while losing the final three games. Their 1-0 defeat Wednesday in Game 7 was the most difficult to take because goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was exceptional, yet still couldn't deliver a victory.

When the Penguins' first season in Consol Energy Center began Oct. 7, neither Shero nor coach Dan Bylsma anticipated them being forced to hastily transform themselves at midyear into a team that was overly reliant on Fleury and top-four defensemen Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang.

After all, the Penguins have always been about goal-scoring first, and they expect to return to being that -- as soon as Crosby and Malkin are back.

As the Penguins' players packed up their bags and officially moved into the offseason Friday, there was every sign that both former NHL scoring champions will be healthy when training camp starts in September.

"We have a lot of good pieces in place that are signed, world-class players. That's the facet that we move forward on, that these core guys are back in place and surround them and hopefully make the right decisions on our free agents that complement these players," Shero said.

Even without Crosby and center Jordan Staal for half a season each, and Malkin from Feb. 5 on, the Penguins finished with 106 points and 49 wins -- the second-highest totals in team history. They also had an NHL season-best 12-game winning streak, and Crosby was Wayne Gretzky- and Mario Lemieux-like while piling up 50 points during a 25-game scoring streak that was the League's longest in 18 years.

"It's a team that I'm real proud of. The way we're built down the middle, that's the way it's been here since I got here," Shero said. "When you've got Staal, Crosby and Malkin that have only played half a season, the other guys had to step up and that says a lot about the team and the character guys that we have and finding ways to win games. It made for a story, and these guys were a story every night."

For the first time, the Penguins also had an NHL-best penalty-killing unit. But by season's end, their power play was one of the League's worst, and it let them down by going 1-of-35 during the playoffs. Had it gone only 2-of-35 against the Lightning, the Penguins might still be playing.

"I think we surprised a lot of people," said Fleury, who overcame a 1-6 start to enjoy his best season and win the team MVP award. "We definitely had a lot of injuries, missing some key guys, and our captain. I'm proud of the way the team played, still battling for first place (in the conference) there at the end."

By keeping his team close to the top of the Eastern Conference even without two of the NHL's best players, Bylsma was chosen as one of the finalists for the Jack Adams Award given to the coach of the year.

"I think it's pretty incredible what we were able to do," Crosby said. "We didn't break stride with what we were trying to do. I think it's going to help everyone next year. We're going to do everything we can to make sure our game is where it needs to be when we start next year."

The Penguins also plan to bring back agitator Matt Cooke, an effective forward who was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games and the Lightning series for his elbow-up hit on the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh late in the season.

Shortly after Crosby was hurt in early January, the Penguins urged the NHL to enact tougher penalties on players who deliver hits to the head. Not backing off their stance, they endorsed the suspension of their own player.

That doesn't mean they are ready to cast off Cooke, who said he sought counseling -- with the Penguins' approval -- during what became a 17-game suspension.

"There is every indication that he'll be back with us," Shero said. "I think with Matt, he's taken steps since the suspension to improve himself as a person and as a player, to be a more effective player for us next year in terms of decisions that he makes on the ice. When we missed Crosby and Malkin in the playoffs, we also missed Matt Cooke."

With 17 players under contract for next season, Shero doesn't have much salary cap room to add another wing or two. The defensive corps likely won't need much touching up, not after the team paid major money last year to sign Michalek and Martin as free agents.

Among the impending free agents are forwards Alex Kovalev, Pascal Dupuis, Maxime Talbot, Mike Rupp, Arron Asham, Craig Adams, Mike Comrie and Chris Conner. Forwards Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey are restricted free agents.

"Up front is where we have the unrestricted free agent questions and that's something we're going to have to make decisions on," Shero said. "There's only so many positions and only so much salary in the salary cap to go around."

Malkin said he is progressing well in his recovery from torn anterior and medial collateral ligaments, but that it was "hard to watch the game" while he was out.

He is skating again, with signs his recovery may be closer to four months than the initially projected six months. Crosby recently had a setback during his concussion recovery, but expects to be fully healthy by September.

"I'm trying to be stronger next year," Malkin said. "I'll work out this summer. I'm staying here two more weeks to continue the rehab. The knee is pretty strong now, and I'm trying to get stronger for next year."

What the Penguins don't plan to do during their longest offseason since they missed the playoffs in 2005-06 is fret about what might have happened had Crosby and Malkin not gotten hurt. Before they were, this was a team that looked to be every bit as good -- if not better -- than that which won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

"Those are just what-ifs," Fleury said. "Everybody here gave all they had and everything they've got. It just didn't go the right way."

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