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Penguins

Penguins able to weather absence of stars

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, 6:24 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes a shot against the Canucks in the third period Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes a shot against the Canucks in the third period Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Blues goaltender Carter Hutton makes a save on the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the first period Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Blues goaltender Carter Hutton makes a save on the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the first period Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang fends off the Blue Jackets' Brandon Dubinsky in the third period Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang fends off the Blue Jackets' Brandon Dubinsky in the third period Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

About 6:30 Tuesday night, Evgeni Malkin skated onto the PPG Paints Arena ice, laid down on his back in the right faceoff circle and contorted his legs in all sorts of ways in his regular pregame stretching routine.

With that, the Penguins dodged another bullet.

They survived another stretch playing without one of their three core stars — Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang — because of injury.

Their overall offensive numbers were a little less impressive while Malkin missed seven games with a lower-body injury, but the Penguins managed to go 4-1-2 and keep pace in the ultracompetitive Metropolitan Division.

“I don't think we've played our best hockey when Geno's been out. The power play hasn't clicked like maybe it did when Geno was in the lineup,” winger Chris Kunitz said. “But I think we're just one of those teams that are fortunate enough to have a deep group of centermen that can eat up a lot of minutes when one of the other ones goes down.”

Playing without one of their top three players is nothing new for the Penguins, of course. Since Mike Sullivan took over as coach last December, the Penguins have played 109 regular-season games. Crosby, Malkin and Letang have been in the lineup together for only 49 of them.

The sample sizes are small, so the numbers undoubtedly are skewed by a hot stretch here, a cold snap there or the effects of strength of schedule and plain old luck, but a statistical hierarchy has emerged when it comes to which of their top players the Penguins can least afford to be without.

Crosby has been the team's most indispensible player.

Under Sullivan, the Penguins are 64-26-11 with Crosby in the lineup and 4-3-1 without him. They're outscored, outshot and outpossessed when their captain doesn't play.

The numbers buttress the argument for Crosby as the sport's most valuable player.

“He's adaptable,” Sullivan said. “He can play with whoever we put him with. He has the ability to adapt and make his line effective. He's just an elite player in every aspect of the game.”

Next up on the indispensability list is Letang.

In the Sullivan era, the Penguins are 14-10-2 when their top defenseman is out of the lineup. They still outscore, outshoot and outpossess their opponents without him but by significantly smaller margins than when he's in the lineup.

Those stats wouldn't surprise Sullivan. From a coaching perspective, he said it generally is more difficult to deal with injuries to defensemen than injuries to forwards.

“I just think, by nature of the position, it's one of the more difficult positions to play and it's critically important to helping teams play the type of game they're trying to play,” Sullivan said.

Malkin, meanwhile, has been the member of the big three that the Penguins have had the most success replacing. Under Sullivan, they're 22-7-3 without him. Their goal-based and shot-based metrics don't take much of a hit when Malkin is out.

Those numbers could be taken to mean Malkin isn't as valuable to the team as Crosby and Letang, or they could shine a spotlight on the extraordinary developments that have prevented the Penguins from feeling the effects of his absence over the past two seasons.

When Malkin went down with an elbow injury late last season, the HBK Line was born. Unexpectedly, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel became hockey's most dangerous trio all the way through the presentation of the Stanley Cup in June.

This season, in Malkin's absence, 27-year-old undrafted rookie Carter Rowney came up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and seamlessly fit in as an NHL-caliber centerman. Josh Archibald scored two goals in his second game in the league. Jake Guentzel, Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr and others changed positions and thrived anyway.

It's a testament to the depth in the organization, but it's also not something the Penguins want to try to pull off frequently.

“You can't replace Geno,” Crosby said. “Getting him back makes us that much more dangerous.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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