Resilient Penguins survive bumpy first-half intact
PITTSBURGH (AP) The do-everything, be-everything center is slumping, at least as far as superstar slumps go.
The elder statesman, resident prankster and unquestioned heart is out for the year and maybe forever with blood that just won't behave.
The wunderkind 20-year-old defenseman beat cancer but not a shaky shoulder.
The businesslike and still kind of mysterious rookie head coach remains months away from the real litmus test, but the early results are encouraging.
And then there's the mumps.
For the better part of a month, the Pittsburgh Penguins saw their roster almost comically ravaged by a childhood virus that temporarily -and quite painfully - turned Sidney Crosby's face into something created by a 4-year-old with Play-Doh and took a handful of teammates along for the ride.
Yet here Sidney Crosby and the new-look Penguins are at the midpoint of an already eventful season back in their usual spot this time of year: near the top of the Eastern Conference and cruising toward the playoffs, which is only barometer that really matters.
Pittsburgh trails the first-place New York Islanders by a point in the Metropolitan Division and are on pace for the second-best regular season in team history. Not bad considering nearly three dozen players - including a steady stream of prospects or minor leaguers thrust into action out of necessity rather than merit - have suited up.
''It hasn't been easy but to everybody's credit they've done what they had to do,'' general manager Jim Rutherford told The Associated Press.
Even if Pittsburgh is doing it in sometimes very un-Penguinlike ways. With defense. With goaltending. With responsible checking and attention to detail. While coach Mike Johnston allows plenty of work remains to be done by the time April rolls around, considering what his team has gone through during Johnston's first four months in charge, things could be a worse.
''The first half we were still learning a lot of different things, getting used to a new system still,'' forward Brandon Sutter said. ''Now I think in the second half it's been kind of time to cement that into our game.''
The Penguins hired Johnston to replace Dan Bylsma last summer and tasked him with finding a system that could thrive in both the regular season and the playoffs. The first six weeks went relatively smoothly, even with forward Pascal Dupuis sent to injured reserve with blood clots that have jeopardized his career and Olli Maatta missing a few weeks while a cancerous tumor was removed from his thyroid.
It was a mirage. The injuries and illnesses began piling up in December, forcing Johnston to abandon teaching the finer points and simply trying to find enough healthy bodies to throw onto the ice on a given night.
It's also forced the Penguins to learn to win by any means necessary, relying more heavily on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and less on the scoreboard-tilting exploits of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh is just ninth in the league in scoring, with Crosby on pace for his lowest goal total over a full season. A sputtering power play over the last month hasn't helped, though Crosby did score an overtime goal at Montreal last weekend.
Crosby brushes off any concern about his production. Really, wasn't the point of the offseason front office overhaul to find a way to make the team less reliant on their two centerpieces? Crosby and Malkin are both in the top five in the league in points and the Penguins have had 24 different players find the back of the net, the most of any team in the league.
''In the whole scheme of things it's more about how you're playing and making sure the chances are there and everyone is contributing,'' Crosby said. ''That goes further than anything.''
Crosby hardly looked like a guy struggling to find his game in a 7-2 win over Minnesota on Tuesday, collecting three assists and putting together a handful of sublimely spectacular dashes to the net.
''We've had so many injuries and so many moving parts here, both him and (Malkin) don't get to play with the same guys all the time,'' Rutherford said. ''Hopefully we can get these guys some regular linemates.''
The process is already well underway. Forward Chris Kunitz appears all the way back from a foot injury that kept him out for 10 games. Rutherford acquired David Perron from Edmonton on Jan. 2, and the talented forward has four points in his first four games, including a slick forehand to backhand rebound from in front of the net on Tuesday night that showcased his soft hands.
Rutherford isn't sure the Penguins are done shopping. With Blake Comeau and Patric Hornqvist also nearing returns from their own medical issues and a schedule that includes games against the Rangers, Philadelphia and Chicago over the next couple weeks, there's a chance to build chemistry and make a statement at the same time.
''I'll get a better sense for it by the middle of February,'' Rutherford said. ''I want to see Hornqvist and Comeau get back in there and get that group of forwards together. I do feel we're edging in the right direction.''