When it comes to the modern NHL, few duos can compete with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Ever since the pair joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005 and 2004, respectively, they’ve carried the franchise to three Stanley Cups.
On Saturday, however, Malkin suffered a lower-body injury in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the team hasn’t comfirmed how much time the Russian will miss, his absence is sure to have a trickle-down effect on Crosby and the rest of the club.
Evgeni Malkin’s injury
In the second period of a comfortable win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Malkin carried the puck through the neutral zone, where he clipped defenseman Kris Letang. The center stumbled and slid into the boards, before bumping into Columbus defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov. The impact didn’t seem very forceful, but Malkin gingerly headed to the locker room.
The center was evaluated after the game and diagnosed with a lower-body injury. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said that he expects Malkin to be out “longer term,” but doesn’t think his season is in jeopardy. Insider Darren Dreger, however, reported that the center suffered a soft tissue injury and will miss at least a month.
Regardless of how long Malkin is out, however, his absence will affect his team in a few ways.
Keying in on Sidney Crosby’s line
The most immediate effect of Malkin’s injury is an overall weakening of the Penguins line-up. Since Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad are also shelved, Sidney Crosby will have to do a great deal of heavy lifting on his own.
The Penguins captain has been skating with Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon on the first line. The second line, without Malkin, will probably consist of Alex Galchenyuk, Jared Mccann, and Brandon Tanev. While neither of those lines is a possession black hole, neither unit is especially terrifying.
Especially when the Penguins are playing on the road, opposing teams will simply match their best checking line and defensive pair against the Crosby unit.
Lack of center depth
Malkin and Bjugstad’s absence will also handicap the Penguins’ center depth. It’s cliche to say that NHL teams win down the middle, but it’s true. Playing without two of your top three centers is a recipe for trouble in both the offensive and defensive zone.
Crosby will obviously steady the first line, and Mccann is a capable second line center, but, after that, the quality drops off. Teddy Blueger has barely played at the NHL level, and Sam Lafferty, who was called up following Malkin’s injury, is a young player with one season of AHL experience under his belt. That’s not ideal for a position with so much responsibility on the ice.
The Penguins’ race against the clock
While it’s easy to think of the Penguins as the dominant team that took home back-to-back Stanley Cups, time has been wearing the team down. Last year, the Pens barely made the playoffs; they qualified but were swept by the New York Islanders in the first round.
Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are still on the roster, but they’re not the same players they once were. The latter two have struggled to stay healthy, and, in such a competitive division, you need to get the best out of your stars every night. If a few losses turn into a lengthy slump, this team might not have the talent to dig themselves out of the hole.
If Evgeni Malkin only misses a month of action, the Pittsburgh Penguins should be OK; their top two lines are solid, and Sidney Crosby can paper over a lot of cracks. If the Russian’s injury drags on into the winter, however, things could get dicier in the Metropolitan Division.