By Allan Muir
Sidney Crosby learned today that he'd been named the NHL's First Star for March. He might have appreciated the nod a bit more if he hadn't heard about it while laid up in in the hospital.
Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer and prohibitive favorite to capture another Hart Trophy as the league's MVP, is still under doctor's care -- not a good sign -- and is out of the Penguins' lineup indefinitely two days after suffering a broken jaw in a game against the Islanders on Saturday afternoon.
"Indefinite" is a purposely nebulous term. The Pens have promised an update later in the week, but they don't want to say anything before they have to.
But we know these things tend to require 4-6 weeks to heal. That means Sid could be out for the rest of the regular season...and possibly into the playoffs, which are scheduled to start Apr. 30.
That's a tough break (sorry about that) for Crosby, who was putting together a season for the ages, and for a Pittsburgh squad that had been universally anointed as Stanley Cup favorites just last week after a trio of deals added Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jarome Iginla to an already nasty lineup.
Oh, and this team has won 15 straight games, just two shy of the all-time record.
No team can lose a talent like Crosby and not feel it...but is it really a disaster for the Pens?
In the short term, probably not. The Pens aren't just used to playing without Crosby. They're used to winning without him -- boasting a 77-39-13 mark during his past five injury-riddled seasons. There's a certain confidence that comes with success like that.
It also helps that the Pens have got a little breathing room in the standings. Pittsburgh currently holds a seven-point lead on the Canadiens for top spot in the East, and has a cushy 17 separating them from the pack in the Atlantic. They'll be hard pressed to maintain their torrid March pace, but they're not likely to let either lead slip from their grasp.
Not as long as Evgeni Malkin stays healthy, anyway.
Malkin, who just returned to the lineup last Thursday after missing eight games, is the ultimate insurance policy, maybe the best 1B center in league history. Crosby has missed 129 games to various injuries. Malkin has played in 87 of them, scoring 54 goals and 122 points, and 40 of those contests came last season after Crosby was felled by a concussion. Malkin's line: 29 goals and 30 assists for 59 points and a Hart Trophy of his own.
Malkin seems to play his best hockey when Sid is out of the lineup. He faces tougher defensive match-ups, but he also earns a heavier workload. He's OK with a secondary role, but being the lead horse suits him just fine. No reason to expect anything different during this key stretch.
Where they may miss Crosby most is on the league's third-ranked power play. A big part of their strength lies in the ability to throw out a Crosby unit, followed by Malkin's group. They both play a high-intensity style that has a way of beating down defenses, so it'll be tough to maintain that 23.4 percent success rate with just one elite unit. The Pens worked out a new look this morning with Iginla manning the point, a role he seldom, if ever, assumed in Calgary. That may take some time to get everyone comfortable, but it could make things interesting.
There's no way to replace Crosby, but GM Ray Shero is likely to sniff around for some insurance at center. He has cap space, and he has assets, but there's no need to go big. Adding a veteran with a bit of offensive flair and some face-off skills -- even if only for playoff depth -- makes sense. But if no one fits the bill at the right price, Shero could choose to stand pat. For now, versatile forward Dustin Jeffrey will get a look between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis in Crosby's spot. That's not ideal, but Jeffrey was fine filling in for Malkin during Geno's recent stint on the sidelines. And Sid? He's already learning to make-do on a liquid diet. Now he has to figure out how to keep weight on and his strength and conditioning up while he recuperates. That may prove to be a bigger issue down the line than any problems caused by his short-term absence. We'll have to wait and see how that plays out.