It’s a fairly well-known fact that framing an Internet headline as a question attracts more eyeballs.
In this case, however, I swear I’m not just looking for a few more cheap clicks. (Although that would be nice. Tell your friends about City of Champions!) I’m legitimately wondering: are the Pittsburgh Penguins better when either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is in the press box instead of on the bench?
If you’re of the belief that having just one superstar in the lineup makes the Penguins more focused, Thursday night was your Exhibit A. The Penguins downed the Sharks, who entered the game with the best points percentage in the NHL, despite Malkin missing his first game of the season with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
Admittedly, the Penguins didn’t grossly outplay the Sharks, even though the 5-1 final score would tell a different story. San Jose fired 45 shots on Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a season high against the Pens but one of eight times the high-flying Sharks have had 40 or more.
A look at the possession-based stats on ExtraSkater.com tells a similar story, although it’s instructive to note the Penguins had a slight edge in even-strength shot attempts until their lead reached 3-0 early in the second period. From there, the Sharks turned up the pressure as Pittsburgh was more content to defend than attack, which is the definition of the term “score effects.”
So we can gather that although San Jose enjoyed a 59-47 edge in 5-on-5 shot attempts, the Penguins were slightly better than the NHL’s top club when the game was in the balance. Arriving back at the original point, it seems foolish to suggest a team is better off without one of the top players on the planet, but I can’t simply dismiss the results the Penguins have gotten when either No. 87 or 71 are on the mend.
Considering Crosby’s extensive injury history, he’s been the one out of the lineup most times. During the 2011-12 season, when Crosby was still struggling with concussion symptoms and missed 60 games, the Penguins posted their highest number of wins (52) and points (108) in franchise history, albeit with the aid of several shootout victories.
Malkin won the scoring title that year (50 goals, 109 points) with James Neal and Chris Kunitz on his wings, one of several examples of “Geno” raising his level of play with Crosby out. Also, perhaps having a clear No. 1 line allowed the rest of the team to fall in line more neatly behind, instead of forcing Bylsma to struggle to get his twin superstar centers enough ice time in crucial situations.
I noticed some evidence of that effect Thursday night. Crosby skated with Kunitz regularly against the Sharks, with Neal and others subbing on the right wing once Pascal Dupuis got hurt early in the second period. At any rate, Crosby’s line was the primary unit, while guys like Jayson Megna, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Conner and Craig Adams powered the rest of the forward corps with relentless speed and forechecking.
Maybe the most notable difference with Malkin out occurred while the Penguins were on the power play. They had but two opportunities Thursday, but Kunitz’ second goal provided a blueprint for decisive tactics while with the man advantage:
With Malkin out, most of the action was going to run through Crosby in his favorite spot on the right half-boards. Oftentimes, the big guys feel the need to share the puck and defer to each other, which can lead to stagnation. With Crosby running the show, he can be the playmaker, with Neal as the shooter and Kunitz in front of the net, as we saw on the above goal.
Most of this is subjective and reliant on other variables, but with the Penguins authoring probably their best performance of the season Thursday night, maybe there’s something to it. Or, it could be the team was energized by having to make up for Malkin’s absence. That kind of adrenaline rush doesn’t last forever, but I’m willing to consider that as well.
Pittsburgh has based its salary allocation around having Crosby and Malkin around long term; however, results may dictate the Pens are more efficient with only one former Art Ross Trophy winner on the ice.