By Josh Yohe
Sidney Crosby could be back in the Penguins' lineup for Thursday's game against Colorado.
Penguins coach Mike Johnston isn't one for hyperbole.
Johnston, however, took a moment Wednesday for a long-winded appreciation for his players. The Penguins remain atop the Eastern Conference despite dealing with a mumps outbreak, cancer, blood clots, a potentially serious shoulder injury, a broken foot, a groin injury, a head injury and numerous other ailments during the past six weeks.
“I really compliment how they've adjusted and how they've handled this,” Johnston said.
Dealing with a mumps outbreak and the reality that their lineup is different almost every night hasn't slowed the Penguins.
Johnston credits his team's mental strength.
“I wouldn't say the players are totally comfortable with it,” Johnston said, explaining that dealing with mumps and different players exiting and entering the lineup provides challenges.
“But they haven't blinked yet. They haven't said, ‘Oh, geez, we're in a real tough spot.' They come to their meetings every morning, look around the room, see who we have (in the lineup) tonight, see who has to fill in. Then they say, ‘These are the adjustments we're going to make. Let's get going.' That's been their attitude.”
The Penguins' lineup remains a mystery as they prepare to host Colorado on Thursday.
There is, however, some good news.
Center Sidney Crosby skated Wednesday for the first time since learning he had mumps Saturday night. Crosby is no longer contagious and has been given clearance to skate with his teammates.
Johnston said “there is a chance” that Crosby will play Thursday.
“He looked good,” Johnston said. “I watched him for a little bit. He went full out, worked with (strength and conditioning coach) Mike Kadar on extra conditioning drills. We'll see for tomorrow.”
Three Penguins — goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, defenseman Olli Maatta and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo — were tested for mumps Wednesday. Maatta and Bortuzzo missed Monday's game against Tampa Bay with injuries.
Fleury was slated to start against Colorado on Thursday, but backup goalie Thomas Greiss has been informed that he will start against the Avalanche.
The Penguins face a grueling schedule of four games in six nights before the Christmas break, but Greiss said he is willing to play all four games. Goalie Jeff Zatkoff, currently playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, is expected to be recalled if Fleury can't dress Thursday.
“I work hard in practice, so my conditioning won't be a problem if I have to play all of those games,” Greiss said. “It's just having the mental strength to get through it.”
Mental strength, perhaps a weakness in recent postseasons, has emerged as a strength of this Penguins team. As injuries and ailments mount, the winning continues.
Since the announcement that Maatta had developed a tumor that was likely cancerous — and it was — the Penguins have gone 16-4-3, despite losing forward Pascal Dupuis for the season and many of their best players for significant stretches during that time.
“This team battles hard,” Greiss said. “We've put everything else aside. We're sticking together.”
Johnston said learning to deal with adversity will help the Penguins in the playoffs.
His team is buying into his words.
“There's only so much you can do,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “We can't all live in a bubble. That's how it goes. All you can do is show up the next day and find a way to win. We know what's going on around the league. But we still have our responsibilities.”
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