Monday, March 14, 2016

Can Pens weather Malkin injury? History says yes

By Brian Metzer
March 14, 2016
Evgeni Malkin (Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The news isn’t new, but let’s rehash it anyway.
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Dalton Prout put the Penguins’ playoff hopes in serious jeopardy on Friday night with an innocuous looking check on Evgeni Malkin during the Penguins 3-2 victory at Nationwide Arena.
Prout and Malkin were coming from different sides of the Blue Jackets net at the 1:10 mark of the second period and collided below the goal line. Malkin’s left forearm or wrist was caught between his own stick, the boards, and Prout and he looked to be in distress as he curled of the hit.
He immediately went to the bench and down the runway. He did return for a shift and managed to set up Carl Hagelin’s winning goal, but quickly exited again. Though the team left Columbus with two-points in hand, there was very much a feeling of “here we go again.”
That vibe manifested itself in some very bad news on Saturday afternoon when general manager Jim Rutherford announced that Malkin would miss the next 6-8 weeks with an upper-body injury.
The Penguins weathered the loss of Malkin for 10 games earlier this season, going 5-4-1 over that span, but their top six looked disjointed and in disarray for much of that time.
The power play also struggled mightily, producing just one goal over 24 opportunities. That four percent conversion rate is in stark contrast to the 20.1 rate that they’ve produced with Malkin in the lineup this season.
The silver lining with the injury, if there is one, is that there are plenty of internal options to slide into Malkin’s large skates. The Penguins are lucky enough to employ two of the top centers on the planet and still have Sidney Crosby, who leads them in scoring with 70 points, at their disposal. Centers Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr also got back in the fold in recent weeks and center Matt Cullen has shown an ability to play anywhere in the lineup.
That depth works in the Penguins favor.
They also have history on their side in this scenario, since they are no strangers to dealing with injuries, especially at inopportune times. They have had a ton of trouble keeping everyone healthy since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and have dealt with significant injuries down the stretch in five of seven years since.
The bad thing over the course of those seasons is that it hasn’t always just been Malkin and Crosby convalescing. They have been joined on the shelf by plenty of other prime time players.
Here is a look at those seasons and how the Penguins fared as they fought to offset those losses.
2010-11 – final record – 49-25-8
The Penguins were cruising along as one of the top team in the Eastern Conference when they lost Sidney Crosby to a concussion on January 5, 2011 in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He actually sustained the injury when he received a forearm shiver from Washington Capitals forward David Steckel on January 1 during that season’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field. He wouldn’t play again, missing 41 games and seven playoff games.
Evgeni Malkin left the lineup with an undisclosed injury on Jan. 20. He missed five games before returning against the Buffalo Sabres on February 4. Malkin would last just over a period, as he sustained MCL/ACL tears after Sabres’ defenseman Tyler Myers fell on his knee. He too would miss the remainder of the season and playoffs.
The Penguins played the final 29 games of that season without Malkin and Crosby, but managed to post a 15-10-4 record down the stretch to secure the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They managed to go up 3-1 in their opening round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning before falling 4-3 in seven games.
2012-13 – final record – 35-12-0
The Penguins were looking like prohibitive favorites for the Stanley Cup as they rolled through the most recent lockout shortened season. They reeled off an impressive 15 straight victories in March to post an undefeated month, but the last win would be costly. They managed to knock off the New York Islanders 2-0, but lost Crosby to a broken jaw after he took a deflected puck to the face. He would miss the final 12 regular season games and one in the playoffs.
He wasn’t the only casualty. Sniping winger James Neal, who rolled up 20 goals and 36 points in 40 games, missed the final nine with a concussion.
The Penguins managed to go 8-4 over those final 12 games, secured the number one seed in the conference and went all the way to the Conference Final before losing in four games to the Boston Bruins.
2013-14 – final record – 51-24-7
The Penguins entered their December 23, 2013 game with the Ottawa Senators carrying a 27-10-1 record. They would sustain their 11th loss of the season, but also lost a key cog in the form of Pascal Dupuis. Defenseman Mark Methot hipchecked Crosby as he skated into the offensive zone, sending him flying into Dupuis’ knee. The latter would miss the final 43 games of the season.
Injuries weren’t the only things that would befall the Penguins, as Kris Letang ended up missing 26 games down the stretch that season after suffering a stroke. He was able to return for the final three games of the regular season, but his loss hurt the team over that stretch of games.
Malkin would also miss the final 11 games of the season after sustaining a sprained foot on March 23, 2014 against the St. Louis Blues.
The team went 5-4-2 down the stretch, secured the number two seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, but were eliminated in round two by the New York Rangers in seven games after blowing a 3-games to one lead.
2014-15 – final record – 43-27-12
Last season was a particularly tough one of the Penguins. They started the season very well, but struggled in the second half. March wasn’t kind to them and lost six of their final nine games as they entered April. Unfortunately they also lost Letang in late March when Shane Doan of the Arizona Coyotes dumped him awkwardly into the boards causing a concussion.
He wouldn’t play the final seven games of the season and the Penguins went 2-4-1 over that span. They squeaked out a 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in their final game to jump over the Boston Bruins, securing the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
They’d go on to lose to the Rangers in five games during the opening round.
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What will end up happening this season? Will they weather this injury to Malkin as they have so many injuries before it? Two goals from Conor Sheary and one from Cullen during a 5-3 victory over the Rangers on Sunday say yes, but that doesn’t tell the whole tale.
With 10 of their final 14 games coming against division opponents, including three against the Philadelphia Flyers, who sit just two points behind them, it isn’t going to be easy.

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