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Analysis: Malkin's loss doesn't dash Cup hopes

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Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011

The Penguins' Stanley Cup blueprint has been torn up worse than center Evgeni Malkin's right knee.

To dismiss them as Stanley Cup contenders was easy Saturday.

To do so also would be unwise because now general manager Ray Shero can do what he does best — make moves near the NHL trade deadline that bolster the Penguins for a playoff run.

The Penguins will have about $8 million prorated in cap space after Malkin is placed on the long-term injury list.

Malkin won't play again this season because of tears to his right anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. The Stanley Cup playoffs open April 13 and wrap by mid-June.

The Penguins (35-15-4, 72 points) figure to be there when the playoffs open, and despite the devastating blow of losing Malkin, they cannot be discounted as capable of raising the Cup.

Center Sidney Crosby first must return from a concussion and eventually be, well, Sidney Crosby — the player who was running away with the NHL scoring title before his injury Jan. 5.

There is no guarantee that version of Crosby will reappear this season, making him the rare MVP candidate and playoff wild card.

Sources said Crosby is at least seven to 10 days away from resuming normal exercise activities, and that is an optimistic view. The Penguins do not expect him to play again until at least March.

The Feb. 28 trade deadline will have passed by then, and the traditionally slick-dealing Shero figures to have made some moves — say, for impending free-agent center Jason Arnott from the out-of-contention New Jersey Devils and/or speedy Edmonton Oilers winger Ales Hemsky.

Combined, Arnott and Hemsky couldn't match Malkin at his best, but Malkin hasn't been at his best since June 2009.

Only two things are certain about these Penguins at this moment:

• Injuries to Malkin, Crosby and rookie Mark Letestu, who is out four to six weeks because of a left knee injury, have rendered them unexpectedly thin at a previous position of strength — center.

• They're a pretty impressive group, considering only two games have been played with arguably their three best forwards — Crosby, Malkin and center Jordan Staal — in the lineup.

The Penguins possess the league's best penalty kill at 88.7 percent, are second with a 2.21 goals-against average and sixth at 3.02 goals per game.

They are 8-3-1 since Crosby was injured and 4-1-0 without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has brilliantly rebounded from a 1-6-0 start. He has allowed more than three goals just once since Nov. 12 and is among the top 10 in wins, goals against and save percentage.

Defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski have teamed for 16 goals and 69 points to boost the offense. They and defensemen Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek have combined to register a plus-64 rating.

Wingers Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy are on pace for respective seasons of 28, 15, 15 and 14 goals — all at or above reasonable expectations.

Less impressive rosters have made deep playoff runs on the strength of great penalty killing, outstanding goaltending, gritty play and timely scoring. Witness the Montreal Canadiens reaching the East final last season and the 2006 Cup Finalist Edmonton Oilers.

These Penguins were built by Shero not to need the trade-deadline moves he made in each of four previous seasons. They were assembled to rely on solid depth and dominant performances from Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury — especially in the playoffs.

Three of those four come mid-April could be enough for an acquisition-aided group of Penguins to successfully chase the Cup.

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