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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011: Pittsburgh Penguins Make It Work Without Crosby, Malkin ... Resurgent Lightning Back in Playoffs


Few would have predicted the Pittsburgh Penguins would be in the position they are had it been known that star Sidney Crosby would have only played in 41 games and Evgeni Malkin just two more.

Crosby still ended up leading Pittsburgh in scoring despite being out since January after suffering a concussion. Crosby is skating and is expected to return sometime during the Penguins' opening round series against the Lightning.

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday night with the Lightning visiting Pittsburgh for the first postseason game at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins have enjoyed success despite missing their two biggest offensive stars this season – but Crosby will be welcomed with open arms once he's ready to go. Despite playing just half the season, Crosby's 32 goals was nine more than Chris Kunitz and his 66 points were 16 more than Kris Letang for the team lead this season.

"To me," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said, “he's playing. Period."

Many wrote off the Penguins once Malkin joined Crosby on the long term disabled list Lightningnewlogo in early February after tearing two liniments in his right knee. But the Penguins soldiered on, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference after chasing down the eventual Atlantic Division champion Flyers. The two Keystone State rivals ended tied with 106 points (one being top seeded Washington) with Philadelphia winning the tiebreaker to earn the No. 2 seed in the east.

Based on the Penguins ability to continue winning despite mounting injuries coach Dan Bylsma has a large groundswell of support for coach of the year honors. “More than half of our team has had a taste of Pittsburgh this year,'' center Ryan Craig told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Craig is the captain for the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and played in six games with Pittsburgh.

Even though Bylsma is getting plenty of praise, he has no problem passing along credit to the stellar play of goalie Marc-Andre  Fleury.

“He's been consistent and that's probably the reason why he's been so good for us this year,'' Bylsma said on a recent stop in South Florida. “He's always had a propensity to get real hot, make those big saves. But his consistency all year has given us the confidence to win games no matter who is in the lineup. We believe we're a good team despite the adversity and the injuries. I think that has pushed him to another level this year. He's always had a swagger, that smile or smirk under the mask.''

With Crosby and Malkin out, Pittsburgh has had to win close games night after night. The Penguins power play finished 25th in the league although the team's penalty kill finished with the best success rate of the 30 teams.

Although Fleury isn't expected to win the Vezina Trophy for the league's top netminder, he may just win the league's MVP award. NBC announcer and former Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk had plenty of praise for Fleury saying “you better be talking about him as an MVP. .-.-.Fleury has proven to be a top-notch goaltender. He had a terrific year. He's going to see a lot of pucks [against the Lightning].''

When the Penguins played host to the Panthers on March 27, Fleury was honored as his team's top player on a vote by his teammates.

“For a big part of the season, [Fleury] has been one of the best goalies in the league if not the best,'' Max Talbot said. “For us, without our big guns out there, he's a very important part of our team. He's been closing the door for us, winning games for us. Give credit to our defenseman as well. Our whole defensive game has improved. But he's the reason why we're fourth in the east and had a chance at first. He's been our best player for sure.''

PENS Fleury, who helped lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009, started off very slow, going 1-6-0 with a 3.54 GAA and a .853 save percentage. He said he was humbled by being honored by his teammates and says had other teammates not stepped up, they wouldn't be where they're at. The Pens won eight of their final 10 heading into the playoffs.

“We have some experience, have been in the playoffs before,'' Fleury said. “I think this adversity we've faced this season makes us a better team.''

Like Olczyk said, Fleury will be tested by the Lightning in this series. The resurgent Lightning won seven of its final eight games to close the regular season, spoiling Carolina's postseason bid by beating the Hurricanes 6-2 in Raleigh on Saturday night.

“They basically won a playoff game against Carolina,'' Versus analyst Keith Jones said. “That was a Game 7 for Carolina and Tampa stepped up and beat them, sent them packing. They've been in a big situation heading into the playoffs. I like the way they settled down and righted the ship before the playoffs arrived. Watch out for Tampa Bay. I think they'll give Pittsburgh all they can handle.''