By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 1, 2012
Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) gets a shootout goal past Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson during an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. The Penguins won 5-4. (AP)
In a conference room Tuesday night high above the Consol Energy Center ice, Penguins general manager Ray Shero and upbeat superstar Sidney Crosby spoke hopefully about the future but stopped well short of predicting when it might arrive. At the same time, the other Penguins players prepared to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the here and now. It was business as usual for them. It's always business as usual for those guys, isn't it?
I want to focus on that group of players. They deserve our attention and respect. They command it, actually.
The Penguins started the unofficial second half of the NHL season by stealing a 5-4 shootout win. For much of the game, they played horribly, allowing one odd-man Toronto rush after another and torturing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as they fell into a deep, dark 4-1 hole that easily could have been 6-1 or even 8-1 if not for Fleury's brilliance. But in the final 11 1/2 minutes, against a team that had been 18-0 when leading after two periods, the Penguins got goals from Steve Sullivan, Joe Vitale and -- who else -- Evgeni Malkin with 6.6 seconds left to force a 4-4 tie. They then won in the shootout when Malkin scored a goal and Fleury made three more saves. It was their eighth consecutive win.
"I'm not sure we deserved the fate we got [Tuesday night]," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "That wasn't a lot of what we want to see on the ice."
OK, so maybe the Penguins failed technically. Maybe they didn't play Bylsma's system to anything close to perfection. Certainly, they were lucky to win. Certainly, they will have to play much better tonight in the second half of the home-and-home against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
But I can't help but think this game was symbolic of what the Penguins have been able to accomplish without Crosby, not just this season but last. Against tough odds, they find a way a lot more often than not. They are 24-15-3 without Crosby this season, 47-28-8 in the 83 regular-season games he has missed in the past 13 months because of his concussion-like symptoms.
I don't know about you, those numbers amaze me.
Sure, it has been a brutal ride for Crosby, wondering if, when and for how long he will be able to play again. "He's a hockey player ... He wants to play hockey," Shero said. But the ups and downs of Crosby's increasingly bizarre recovery also have been tough on his teammates. They, too, have had a turbulent journey.
The latest Crosby medical news is positive, at least as it was presented in that conference room. Crosby doesn't have and never had a fracture in his neck. Instead, the most recent diagnosis is a soft-tissue neck injury, which could be causing his concussion symptoms and can be treated. It's encouraging to Crosby because "it's something I can work on rather than sitting around and hoping [for the symptoms to subside]."
The other Penguins also are optimistic that Crosby now will be able to make a quick return to the lineup. It's not just that he's their captain, their leader, their best player. He's their friend. They want the best for him. They want him to be happy.
"Our only hope at this point is that he gets healthy," winger Matt Cooke said after scoring the Penguins' first goal against the Maple Leafs, his first in 20 games.
But the Penguins have been hopeful before about Crosby only to be disappointed. They were hopeful he would make it back last season after he left the team Jan. 6 after his concussion was diagnosed. He never did. They were hopeful he was back to stay this season when he returned Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders. He lasted just eight games.
"There's not always a lot of answers with this [concussion] stuff," Crosby admitted.
The other players have the right approach this time. They are eager to get Crosby back. "Believe me, we'll welcome him with open arms," Cooke said.
But until Crosby returns?
You got it.
Business as usual.
Finding a way without him.
"If we wonder or question or worry or put more emphasis on his return, we won't be as focused on the task at hand," Cooke said. "That's Toronto [tonight]. That's all we're looking at."
That's all the Penguins can look at.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. More articles by this author