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Depleted Pens' fate could hinge on the status of captain Crosby

Analysis

The injury-ravaged Penguins were blindsided by more crippling news Sunday: Right wing James Neal is out indefinitely with a broken foot, center Jordan Staal will miss four to six weeks with a torn knee ligament, and right wing Craig Adams possibly sustained a significant knee injury.

"This is unbelievable," defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

But it's reality.

Already without stars Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, the Penguins appear to be in grave danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2006. Crosby hasn't addressed the media in four weeks, and Letang hasn't played since sustaining a concussion Nov. 26. There is no indication either's return is imminent.

The Penguins are one point ahead of the Winnipeg Jets and two points ahead of the Washington Capitals for the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, with the season's halfway mark coming this week.

With so many key players out of the lineup, general manager Ray Shero may be forced to trigger a trade — possibly soon — to help the beleaguered forwards.

But so much hinges on Crosby, who hasn't skated in more than a month and has played just 10 games in the past 12 months.

Many in the organization believe he will return during the regular season. If Crosby hasn't informed Shero of his plans for the remainder of the season, he must take it upon himself to do so now.

Should Crosby tell the team he is done for the season, Shero will have the flexibility to work with expanded salary cap space — if Crosby is finished for the season, the Penguins can place him on the long-term injured list retroactive to his last game, and most of his $8.7 million cap hit would not count. If Crosby's unknown status lingers, Shero could be handcuffed in making a significant move.

Shero could not be reached for comment, but coach Dan Bylsma was not making excuses for the team's four-game losing streak.

"You get the news about an injured player," he said, "and at some point you understand there will be injuries, and you move on and get ready to play the next game."

Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award last season as the NHL's best coach, largely for leading his injury-riddled team to a surprising finish and a postseason berth. But he finds his hands full again this season.

In a span of little more than 36 hours, the Penguins lost Staal, Neal and Adams.

> > Staal injured his left knee Friday night against the New York Rangers and missed Saturday's game. It was revealed yesterday that he tore his MCL, though he does not need surgery.

> > Neal broke his foot during the third period of Saturday's loss to New Jersey. Bylsma said he is out "weeks, not days."

> > Adams collided with defenseman Brooks Orpik in practice yesterday and immediately clutched his right knee before being helped off the ice. His status was unknown.

"We need to be able to react better, play better, stay focused and keep playing our game," Bylsma said, "regardless of the situation."

It could be argued that Crosby, Staal, Neal, Letang, center Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury are the team's six best players. Four of them are out. Of the 22 Penguins who traveled to Vancouver to start the season, 11 have missed at least a week with an injury. Two (defenseman Deryk Engelland and Letang) have been suspended, and one (center Mark Letestu) has been traded.

"I hope guys are paying attention to the standings," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I can tell you where every single team is in the standings and what their numbers are. You can say you can only control the way your team is playing, but that's kind of a stupid way to look at it. The board with the standings is in here (the Penguins locker room) for a reason."

Bylsma says his team remains psychologically strong.

"We are aware of the standings," Niskanen said. "I don't think we're concerned yet."

Bylsma said multiple players could be recalled from the team's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Just like last year. Other changes might be quick to follow, should the Penguins extend their slide, though Bylsma did not elaborate.

"As a group," Bylsma said, "we have to go out and find a way to have success and win hockey games."

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