NEWARK (AP) — After a rocky start without Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been thriving despite the absence of the NHL’s scoring leader.
They’re about to find out if they can do the same without their other All-Star center.
Evgeni Malkin won’t be in the lineup Thursday night in New Jersey as Pittsburgh looks to extend its winning streak to four against the improving Devils.
The Penguins (29-14-4) scored three goals in losing the first three games Crosby missed due to a concussion, but they’ve hardly been inept offensively in their last three contests. Pittsburgh has totaled 12 goals in beating three teams in first or second place in their respective divisions, the latest victory coming by a 4-1 score over Detroit on Tuesday.
Center Jordan Staal, who made his season debut Jan. 1 after recovering from hand surgery, had the Penguins’ first goal and has scored in three straight games.
“He controls the middle of the ice, controls down low,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s something maybe we didn’t have earlier in the year when Sid and (Malkin) were playing.
“There’s more depth at the center position, we’re better in the (faceoff) circle, we’re better in penalty killing, so we can win games different ways.”
That depth is about to be tested again. Malkin has an undisclosed injury and will not make the trip to New Jersey, meaning Staal, Max Talbot and rookie Mark Letestu – who signed a $1.25 million, two-year contract extension Tuesday – will have to step up.
“Thank goodness we got (Letestu) locked up for a few years, because he’s going to break out tomorrow and be worth a lot more,” Bylsma joked Wednesday.
Letestu does have some experience scoring at the Prudential Center. His first career road goal came there Oct. 11, a power-play tally that was the winner in a 3-1 victory.
Crosby and Chris Kunitz each had a goal and an assist in the other meeting with New Jersey this season, a 2-1 Penguins home win Dec. 6.
The Devils (13-29-3) were early in a 2-15-0 stretch then, but they’re playing much better lately – even if they’ve already dug too big of a hole to be a factor in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
For the first time all season, New Jersey has picked up seven points in a span of four games. The Devils bounced back from a 3-2 overtime loss at Florida on Saturday by concluding their road trip with a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders.
“You can tell we work way harder than we used to,” said forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who has three goals in three games. “We’re practicing way more intense and everybody is getting into game shape.”
Martin Brodeur missed the latest meeting with Pittsburgh due to an elbow injury and was resigned to the bench for three games earlier this month, but he’s been in net for each game of the team’s 3-0-1 stretch.
Brodeur has gone 7-3-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average in his last 10 starts against the Penguins, who won’t be overlooking New Jersey.
“They had a rough start, but they’re starting to make a push and they’re starting to play better,” said Staal, who went scoreless in six games against the Devils last season. “They always give us a great show every time when we play them, so we’ve got to give it our best shot.”
© 2011 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.