Penguins didn't see this coming
On Nov. 21, the sky seemed to be the limit for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was the night Sidney Crosby returned from a concussion that had sidelined him since January.
All Crosby did that night was score twice and add two assists in a 5-0 rout of the Islanders. It was Pittsburgh's 12th win in 21 games, but two weeks later Crosby had another concussion.
Not only is Crosby still hurt, standout defenseman Kris Letang also has a concussion and Jordan Staal is out with a knee injury — making that optimistic fall night in Pittsburgh seem like forever ago.
Since Crosby's most recent appearance, on Dec. 5, the Penguins have lost nine of 14 and ended a six-game losing streak with a 4-1 win Friday at Florida. Just two weeks into 2012, Pittsburgh found itself sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference — an unfamiliar, uncomfortable position.
The Penguins got a little bit of good news Friday, when Crosby joined them for their morning skate at the Bank Atlantic Center. But as concussed players around the league have demonstrated this year, skating in a non-contact practice does not mean a return is imminent.
"He has been working out with light exercises in the weight room and on the bike," coach Dan Bylsma said on Thursday. "We'll be glad to see him on the ice."
Pittsburgh caught a break when left wing James Neal — who was believed to have a fractured foot last weekend — was diagonesd with a bone bruise and returned to play against Ottawa on Tuesday. Neal scored his 22nd goal in the third period of Friday's win, good for fifth in the NHL.
Having Neal back is a bonus for Pittsburgh. But if the team is to prevent its season from spiraling out of control at the midway point, it must lean on its remaining superstars — forward Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Malkin is making an early case for the Hart Trophy with 18 goals and 28 assists in just 36 games while Fleury is in the top 10 in goals-against average and wins.
Those two cannot carry the Penguins through the rest of the season without a supporting cast, though they can keep the team within playoff contention until reinforcements arrive.
Struggling to keep their heads above water is not what these Penguins envisioned on that night in November.