- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Take Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom off the Washington Capitals and there would be reason for concern. Take the best two players off any NHL team and there are problems.

But the Pittsburgh Penguins sure look like the exception to that rule of thumb, as they’ve thrived in the past nine months even without two of the top players in the world — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Crosby suffered a concussion in early January and Malkin tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in early February. Yet the Penguins have gone 20-11-5 since then when both stars are out of the lineup.

“Obviously they’re doing some things right without those two lineup in the lineup,” Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. “Just because you don’t see 71 [Malkin] or 87 [Crosby] in the lineup, it doesn’t mean that they’re not a very good hockey team.”

Dan Bylsma’s team proved last year it was good, not falling off when Malkin was lost for the season. The Penguins actually finished with 106 points and made the playoffs, on the strength of players like Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal. And, of course, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who led them to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

“They still have a ton of really good players. Their goaltending is awesome. They all work extremely hard,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “A lot of them have won a Cup, so they know what it takes to win.”

Winning is an attitude, but it also takes talent. With Kunitz and Staal able to step up, and acquisitions like James Neal filling holes, general manager Ray Shero made sure this wasn’t a two-man team on offense.

“On every team you have your few superstars, and in their case they have two of the best in the league,” Brouwer said. “The other guys get overshadowed as a result of it. They got a lot of good guys throughout that lineup, a lot of guys who can score, a great supporting cast.”

It seems like the Penguins have almost gotten used to playing without Crosby and Malkin. They’re 26-13-6 since Crosby went out with the concussion problems.

But with a bit of a different team this year, not much has changed. Pittsburgh started the season with a three-game Western Canada swing with stops in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton and returned home to face the Panthers. They have yet to lose a game in regulation despite Malkin missing the two most recent games with a “lower-body injury.”

“They’re just good,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “They’re a difficult team to play against. There’s a reason they’re 3-0-1, too, starting with the first three on the road out west. When you can do that, you got a good team.”

And, then, if and when Crosby and Malkin are reunited, the Penguins could become scary.