There is just something deeply unsatisfying about watching a team without its superstar player, no matter how much it overachieves without him for a while. It's the
So it is with watching the Penguins finally. You just can't help muttering, "WWSHD?" --
There's also WWEHD -- with Evgeni Malkin also too hurt to play for Pittsburgh -- and that only makes things more depressing for Penguins watchers, as they see their team frittering away a series. This is really not meant to take away from the Lightning, who played a tough, strong game in their 4-2 win to force a Game 7 Wednesday in Pittsburgh (which could be their first Game 7 triumph since winning a little thing called the Stanley Cup in 2004).
But there is no mistaking when a team starts to finally come back to the mean, as statisticians like to say. Right now, the Penguins are coming back to the mean, no matter how much bearded, snaggletoothed demeanor they pretend to give off without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee). Sports coaches won't tell you this publicly, but they say it privately: You can overcome injuries to star players for a while at the beginning, but you can't do it for the long haul.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma deserves a thousand hosannas for keeping his team so competitive for so long without Crosby and Malkin. And what coach wouldn't want to say, "We've got a Game 7 at home" coming up?
But the returns are diminishing for his team, slowly but surely, without his two tremendously gifted scorers. The Penguins just have no pop right now, while the Lightning have put up eight goals on Marc-Andre Fleury (and four on Brent Johnson) in the last two games.
On Monday night, Steve Downie tallied one goal as part of a three-point night -- the first such effort of his career, regular-season or playoffs. His rebound stuff-in at 4:55 of the third period quickly erased the momentum Pittsburgh had gotten on Jordan Staal's tying goal at 3:48.
Downie's game-winner was followed up by Ryan Malone's breakaway marker at 9:34, after a terrific lead pass from Lightning defender Mattias Ohlund.
Dwayne Roloson, at 41 years young, made three successive, doorstep stops to preserve the late lead Tampa Bay and finished with 27 saves.
For all the nitpicking of the Penguins' offense, they did outshoot Tampa Bay 29-21, which naturally will start to gain Fleury some unwanted attention entering Game 7. "The Flower" has wilted of late, with eight goals allowed on his last 35 shots faced.
It doesn't seem promising Crosby will be coming through that door for a Game 7, either. While Willis Reed-style visions no doubt will appear in the minds of Penguins fans toward a dramatic Crosby return Wednesday, the facts point to that being a fantasy.
Crosby's only headgear of late remains a telephone-operator-style headset, not a strapped-in helmet. Malkin has no chance of playing with his knee injury.
The power play is the obvious area where the Penguins have missed their two stars the most. Pittsburgh is now a putrid 3.3 percent on the power play in this series. Pittsburgh's attack now seems based on getting the puck back to the point, firing through a maze of bodies and hoping for the best. Hope is not a business plan, however. While Pittsburgh rode the overachieving offensive efforts of players such as Aaron Asham for a while, it's all starting to look painfully exposed now.
Roloson, a student and fan of the game, might have a deep spot in his heart to want to beat the Penguins with their best. Then again, maybe not.
Hockey players may be sentimental about their game, but they don't have any sympathy.