Injuries have racked the Pittsburgh Penguins since the beginning of the season. As if the first puck drop of the season signaled the opening of Pandora’s box, now the Penguins must fight though an injury to their leader and perhaps the best player in the world. Sidney Crosby is reportedly deciding between surgery and rehab for a sports hernia that he suffered in training camp but fought through to carry the Penguins this far.
For the first month of the season, the Penguins were without five of their top nine forwards for a significant time. Now Crosby will make six. The Penguins managed to survive and in some ways, thrive when Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Bryan Rust, Alex Galchenyuk, and Patric Hornqvist were injured.
But Crosby is different.
The Penguins are in real trouble and will need to earn points to keep pace in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins are currently the top Wild Card team, but in their rearview mirror are Toronto, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Buffalo.
Those are four playoff-worthy teams, including two Stanley Cup contenders (Tampa Bay, Toronto), and two up and coming teams. Carolina was the Eastern Conference runner up last season, in case you forgot.
UPDATE: Sidney Crosby underwent successful surgery on Thursday morning. According to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he is expected to be out at least six weeks.
How the Penguins Survive:
There will be no great secret or twists to how the Penguins weather a storm which has now become a tornado. It may read like a cliche, but the Penguins will need everyone to produce just a little more, skate just a little faster, and play just a little harder. They will need to continue to limit opponents scoring chances, but finish just a couple more of their own. Tactically, the Penguins have options, too.
The Penguins lines for the next six weeks could look like this:
The Penguins have thus far been able to suppress opponents scoring and scoring chances while creating a majority of the opportunities and getting a majority of the goals. That’s a winning formula which doesn’t take an advanced stats devotee to figure out. However, that achievement was with Sidney Crosby as the top-line center. Head coach Mike Sullivan had the option to match what he called, “power against power,” by putting Crosby against the opponent’s top line.
Sullivan could match “power against power,” by putting Malkin against the opponent’s top unit, but fortunately, he has a better option. The Penguins energy line with Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev have been nothing short of dominant.
Consider their stats as a line. They have taken 56% of the shots and shot attempt, their advanced stats predict they have an expected-goals-for ratio of 60%, they’ve had 60% of the scoring chances while their on the ice, a whopping 70% of the high-danger chances, all while beginning about half of their shifts in the defensive zone.
All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com’s line tool.
In short, they’ve shut down the opposition, including opposing top lines, bolted from the defensive zone, and created more offensive chances than they’ve allowed. And they’ve scored more goals than they’ve allowed, too.
That line will be asked to suppress the opposition further. It will have a more prominent role than anyone envisioned for the Teddy Blueger line. The alternative is a defensive line with Nick Bjugstad and Jake Guentzel, and that duo may see some high leverage minutes, too, but the Penguins will need as much offense as they can muster.
Replacing Crosby’s 100 points, defensive prowess, and leadership will not be easy. It’s impossible. The administration of the Penguins room and who will step forward also becomes an interesting dynamic. The Penguins are also without Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang, so their veteran core is not there.
McCann and Tanev could fill part of that role. Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson was recently given the “A,” too.
So, for the Penguins to hang on in the Eastern Conference and not trail some of the better teams in the East by six or more points by Christmas break, they will have to allow even fewer chances. They’re currently a top-five team in scoring chance differential. They will have to grind away at opponents to pick up points in any way they can.
And Penguins goalie Matt Murray may need to make a few extra stops as part of his contribution to the Crosby-deficit. Murray has a respectable .914 save percent this season, but the Penguins will need all of the help they can get.
They will not have the luxury of more slow starts and awful first periods. Nor will they have the luxury of a sputtering power play. The Penguins coaches probably don’t need to sound the alarm or call for all hands on deck. The locker room should already know.
And that’s how the Penguins can survive a Sidney Crosby absence.