Playing without Sidney Crosby may make the Pittsburgh Penguins a better team in the long run. Getting the reigning MVP back in their lineup, though, could be the final piece that leads them to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
|Evgeni Malkin celebrates his 100th point of the season Saturday. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh hoped to see him return Monday, but it turns out Crosby will not be available for a road game against the last-place New York Islanders.
Crosby accompanied the Penguins to Long Island, but ruled himself out of this matchup after skating with his teammates Monday morning. He stayed on the ice at Nassau Coliseum well after the rest of the team went to the dressing room and said his sprained right ankle feels better, but that he was not in game condition yet.
Crosby did not say if he expected to play Tuesday's game at New Jersey.
When Crosby went down with a badly sprained ankle Jan. 18 against Tampa Bay, the Penguins (43-25-7) figured to have trouble reaching the playoffs for a second straight season. Evgeni Malkin, however, has more than compensated for the absence of Pittsburgh's No. 1 center, tallying 14 goals and 22 assists in the first 21 games that Crosby missed.
Malkin, who has played his first two seasons in Crosby's shadow, is second in the league with 102 points and fourth with 44 goals. He is the 12th Penguins player to reach 100 points in a season, the 28th time in franchise history that mark has been reached.
"I am having a lot of fun right now," Malkin said through an interpreter. "I am enjoying (it) because we have a great team and we are winning games. Especially on our home ice, we are winning the big games."
Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer at the time of his injury, returned to the lineup on March 4, playing three games until pain in his ankle forced him to sit out the past five contests. He took part in the pregame skate Saturday but did not play in Pittsburgh's 7-1 win over New Jersey that moved it into the Atlantic Division lead.
"I feel like I'm better off than I was the first time I came back," Crosby said. "It feels stronger."
When Crosby does return, he will be playing on a line with right wing Marian Hossa, which should make Pittsburgh's already potent offense even better.
Hossa had three assists on Saturday, Malkin had two goals and an assist, and Ryan Malone scored twice as the Penguins coasted to their fifth win in six games.
Pittsburgh, which has outscored opponents 31-14 during those six games, became the first team to score seven goals against the defensive-minded Devils since Carolina on March 17, 2007.
|Wade Dubielewicz is 2-0-0 with a 1.98 GAA against the Penguins lifetime. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
"We didn't expect (seven goals), but we'll take it," Malone said. "Sometimes that's how it works. They played last night, so we wanted to kind of jump on them early."
Pittsburgh is two points ahead of the Devils in the Atlantic and one behind Montreal in the race for the top seed in the East.
The Islanders (33-36-7) have been reduced to the role of spoiler, unable to overcome an offense that has scored a league-low 181 goals.
"It's tough to watch sometimes," coach Ted Nolan said. "We just need to get back and evaluate it and see who's stepping up and who's competing and who's not."
New York's offense struggled again Sunday in a 4-1 loss at Philadelphia, managing only a late third-period goal by Miroslav Satan. It was the seventh defeat in eight games for the Isles, who got 22 saves from Joey MacDonald in his season debut.
Wade Dubielewicz, who figures to be back in net Monday, is 2-0-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average in two career games against Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are 4-2-0 this season against the Islanders, winning two of three games at Nassau Coliseum.