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WHILE LIFE without Sidney has gone swimmingly in Pittsburgh, the Penguins' reluctant general manager, Ray Shero, says only, "we're keeping our head above water." They were 6-3-2 sans Sidney Crosby through Sunday, a statistic that has been religiously noted in Pittsburgh since he sustained a high-right-ankle sprain during a Jan. 18 game. Similar bookkeeping occurs in places such as Colorado, where the Avalanche had gone 4-3-2 without top forwards Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth and Paul Stastny, but the absence of Crosby qualifies as a special case because, well, Crosby is special. Before his injury the reigning MVP had scored 63 points, tied for the league lead, and had helped carry Pittsburgh to nine wins in 10 games.
Although Crosby's 21 minutes of ice time are being spread around—veteran right wing Petr Sykora has upped his average by nearly four minutes, to 19:22, while scoring 13 points in the 11 games—the heavy lifting of Pittsburgh's offense has been shouldered by second-year center Evgeni Malkin. Malkin can't understudy Crosby in a Gatorade commercial (he speaks no English), but the 21-year-old Russian is doing a boffo job on the ice. After averaging 1.2 points per game B.C. (Before Crosby went down), he has increased his pace to 1.9, including a two-goal, three-point game against Washington on Jan. 21, when he matched Alexander Ovechkin in a sublime duel.
For a few games in January, Malkin, nominally the Penguins' second-line center, had played on Crosby's left flank and clicked wondrously. Yet the return to his natural position has hardly hurt him, even though he attracts every shutdown defense pair and checking line. "I don't know how much he enjoys [the spotlight], but he's good enough to handle it," Shero says of Malkin, who was picked second in the 2004 draft, one spot behind Ovechkin.
If Malkin's star turn—his recent play has made him a Hart Trophy candidate—is no surprise, goalie Ty Conklin's is shocking. The 31-year-old journeyman was earning $100,000 in the minors when he got called back to the NHL because of a different high-ankle sprain, this one to Pittsburgh starter Marc-Andr� Fleury, who was hurt on Dec. 6. In Conklin's first appearance, relieving Dany Sabourin to start the third period on Dec. 11, he was torched for three goals on 15 shots by the Flyers. Oilers G.M. Kevin Lowe and Blue Jackets G.M. Scott Howson called the next day to reassure Shero that the goalie was a battler ( Edmonton and Columbus were stops along Conklin's circuitous professional route), and Conklin quickly proved them right, winning his first nine starts. He was 14-3-3 with a .929 save percentage through Sunday.
"Sometimes a goalie of that type will go on a run like Alex Auld did in Boston [three straight road wins in December], but usually it's four, six or 10 games," an Eastern Conference scout says. " Conklin has kept it up."
Penguins players say that the best way to compensate for the loss of Crosby's offense is to clamp down on defense, and lately Conklin has been cocooned by a more accountable team. In his last eight games B.C., the goalie faced an average of 36 shots. In the absence of Crosby—who is skating with the team and is due back by mid-March—that average had dipped to fewer than 30. Says Conklin, who will have to share the net when Fleury returns later this month, "With guys having to take more responsibility, playing without Sid might help us down the road."
ONLY AT SI.COM Michael Farber's news and analysis column, On the Fly.