In which the little lights, they're not twinkling...
Three short weeks ago, we were all celebrating this...
We had eight games of Crosby. Two goals. Ten assists. Twelve points. Plus-seven. Damn. We all joked that Pat Lafontaine was going to start giving advice to Phil Kessel about holding off Penguins captains in scoring races.
Then came the news after the game in Boston that he was going to take a couple of games off as a precaution.
Then today, a return of some of those familiar words.
"A return of some symptoms."
"No timetable for his return."
We'll let Clark Griswold summarize what the last three weeks have been like for Pens fans everywhere here.
Sorry it's just the link. No embedding allowed on the clip.
But you get the point. One minute, we're giddy that all the waiting and hand-wringing and listening to the ridiculous retirement talk over the summer paid off. It didn't just pay off, actually; it looked like it might have been even better than what we hoped.
The next minute, we're figuratively beating the crap out of lawn ornaments and flailing wildly in frustration at plastic reindeer.
But what else can you do? You can look at this whole thing from hundreds of angles. You can point fingers at the doctors, the management or the coach. No one is going to stop the speculation. We're fans of the team, and that's what fans tend to do.
But really, no one knows when he'll be back. No one knows what he can tolerate when he does come back. We won't know...until he's back. It's really that simple.
When he does, he'll be back on the ice. And it'll once again be just like Clark Griswold at the end of that clip, standing on the lawn, bathed in Christmas-lighted glory and accompanied by choirs of angels singing "Hallelujah". It'll probably be enough to make our uppity Eastern Conference neighbors cry.
Just please...this time, hockey gods, let us - and Sid, especially - enjoy this again for a little while before Cousin Eddie pulls up in the RV.
In the meantime, this team will be fine.
Much like last year, this Pens team has held their own despite an absurd amount of injuries, particularly to the defensive corps.
Thirty games into the season now, and this Pens team has already dressed eleven defensemen. With Letang, Michalek and Lovejoy out now, they're down three of their top seven. Kick in Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo and that makes five of their top ten. That's crazy.
The bigger picture is just as ridiculous.
This team has already dressed 28 skaters. To put that into some perspective, the 2003-04 and 2005-06 Pens teams - each marred by the turnover from trades and callups that tend to accompany bad teams - dressed 29 and 31 skaters, respectively.
Through all of that, this Pens team sits one point back in the division. They have the second-highest point total in the East. That success has not come with smoke and mirrors.
With 17 goals, James Neal sits a goal back of the league-leading pace, and he's developed into an all-around threat in this system.
Despite a recent string of games in which he's given up some goals high to the glove side, Fleury is still playing at nearly career-year levels with a 2.23 goals-against and a .919 save percentage. At age 27 (27???), Fleury is just now beginning to hit what are usually the peak years for a goaltender. Scary, really.
Pascal Dupuis is on pace for a career year. Chris Kunitz is on pace to match his career high of 25 goals.
And then there's the matter of the other franchise center.
With 28 points in 23 games, Evgeni Malkin has quietly snuck into the top 25 in the NHL scoring race. He has 6 goals and 18 points in his last fifteen games, and he's coming off consecutive 2-point games against the Islanders and Flyers.
We've seen him take over in Crosby's absence before. Think back to 2007-08 when Crosby suffered the high ankle sprain. Malkin didn't miss a beat then, and this is the best he's really looked since the 2009 playoff run.
This is a well-coached team with depth that suits the system. The wins won't be as pretty as they were the night Crosby returned against the Islanders, but that's probably fine with Bylsma, even if he had Crosby out there. Bylsma said after a bad loss at Toronto a couple of years ago in which the team got too cute for its own good that the Pens needed to remember their identity. This is a grinding team built to wear opposing teams down through hard work, fundamental hockey and relentless pressure. When they struggle, it's often because they try to be something other than that. If they stick to that identity, more often than not, they find success.