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Penguins find ways to win without Crosby

by John Kreiser
Who needs Sidney Crosby, anyway? Apparently not the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That's overstating the case more than a little bit -- obviously, the Penguins are eager for their captain to return. Crosby was on the way to the best season of his career before going down with a concussion a month ago. But as with all successful teams, the Penguins have found a way to win without their biggest star.

The Penguins enter Friday's home game against Buffalo with a 7-3-1 mark since Crosby was hurt in their Jan. 5 game against Tampa Bay -- meaning they've earned 15 of a possible 22 points, or 68.1 percent. That's actually better than they were doing with him; Pittsburgh was 26-12-3 (55 points, 67.0 percent) with Crosby in the lineup. Even more impressive, they've won four of five without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who's scheduled to return against the Sabres after being out with a knee injury and a sinus infection.

Not surprisingly, the Penguins' offense has suffered without Crosby. Pittsburgh averaged 3.13 non-shootout goals in its first 41 games with him in the lineup; without him, they're scoring just 2.27 per game. But Pittsburgh has compensated with solid defense and goaltending -- the Penguins have gone from allowing an already-stingy 2.29 goals a game before Crosby went down to a nearly air-tight 1.91 without him.

The biggest heroes during Crosby's absence have been the penalty-killers. Pittsburgh was killing 87.2 percent of opposition power plays before Crosby was hurt; since his injury, they've killed 45 of 48 (93.8 percent) and chipped in with a shorthanded goal. Overall, their 88.6-percent kill rate is tops in the NHL, more than two percentage points better than second-place Washington.

Will the Penguins be glad to get Crosby back? Unquestionably. But they've proved to themselves -- and everyone else around the NHL -- that they can find ways to win without their captain.

Home cooking -- After a slow start in their new home, the Penguins also have proven they can win consistently at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins lost their first three games in their new digs, but since then, they are 18-6-1.

The biggest reason for their success at home is their ability to get the jump on their opponents. The Penguins have outscored the opposition 31-14 in the first period at home this season and haven't allowed a first-period goal in their last five home games.

Score one for the home team -- It took nearly two years, but the home team finally won a shootout in a game that ended in a scoreless tie, after eight consecutive wins for the visiting team. Pierre-Marc Bouchard's goal gave Minnesota a 1-0 victory against Los Angeles at the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday -- the first such win by a home team since San Jose beat Colorado 1-0 on April 7, 2009. Visiting teams went 6-for-6 last season, and Buffalo won this season's only other double shutout through 65 minutes when Thomas Vanek scored the lone shootout goal at Ottawa on Dec. 4.

In all, there have been 21 games that have gone to a shootout without a goal since the NHL adopted the tiebreaker in 2005, with the visiting team winning 12 of the 21 games. The Rangers have been involved in four, more than any other team; the Phoenix Coyotes have the most wins, with three.

Mr. Zero -- To say goaltender Dwayne Roloson has given the Tampa Bay Lightning a boost since coming over from the New York Islanders on Jan. 1 would be an understatement. Roloson had four shutouts in his first 11 games with the Lightning -- including a pair against Southeast Division rival Washington and another against Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia. He's already had more shutouts in 2011 than he managed in all of calendar years 2007 through 2010 combined. He had just two in the last three seasons while playing for Edmonton and the Islanders.

Mr. Lucky -- Unfortunately for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kris Versteeg is not a 50-goal scorer -- if he were, they might be near the top of the Eastern Conference. Versteeg scored his 14th goal of the season Thursday as the Leafs beat Carolina 3-0. Versteeg has his 14 goals in 13 games -- and Toronto is 11-0-2 when he lights the lamp. When he doesn't, the Leafs are just 10-25-2.

At last -- It's taken five seasons, but the Calgary Flames finally have discovered how to win shootouts.

The Flames lead the NHL this season with seven shootout wins (in 11 tries, also tops in the League). Both totals are remarkable -- Calgary entered the season having taken part in just 38 shootouts, fewer than any team in the League in the first five years of the tiebreaker. They had won just 14, also fewer than any other club.

Calgary has gotten a boost from newcomer Alex Tanguay, who has taken part in all 11 shootouts and scored a League-leading six times, and Rene Bourque, who's 4-for-7, including a League-best 3 game-deciding goals. What's remarkable is that neither player had been very good at shootouts until this season.

Tanguay was 7-for-22, a 31.8-percent success ratio that's slightly below the League all-time average of 32.7 percent. But Bourque's success is stunning -- he was just 1-for-8 all-time entering the season and had never had a game-deciding goal.
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