When the 2013 NHL playoffs begin, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference and reach the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in the last six seasons.
But if superstar center Sidney Crosby is unable to play during the playoffs, or misses a round or two, can the Penguins come out of a strong conference and win a championship?
Bovada currently gives the Penguins 4/1 odds to win the Cup, with the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Boston Bruins rounding out the top four at 11/2, 9/1 and 9/1 odds, respectively.
On paper, the Penguins have enough talent to win a championship if Crosby doesn't play for the remainder of the season, but the team's chances of accomplishing its main goal are much slimmer in that scenario. The impact Crosby has on this team from a scoring, leadership and confidence stanpoint cannot be underestimated.
The best-case scenario for the Penguins is that Crosby returns for Game 1 of the playoffs (via Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review):
For starters, Crosby is the most unstoppable player in the world when he is healthy, and in the 36 games he's played this season, no one has been more productive offensively. He still leads the NHL with 56 points (15 goals, 41 assists) and was scoring at the best rate of his career (1.55 points/game).
Since Crosby left Saturday's game against the New York Islanders with a jaw injury, Pittsburgh has not scored more than two goals in a game. Before that Islanders matchup, the Penguins were averaging 3.4 goals scored per game, but with Crosby missing the last three games, the Penguins are 1-2 and have been outscored 11-3 in that span.
The Pittsburgh power play has also struggled mightily without Crosby. Including the Islanders game that Crosby left because of injury, the Penguins have converted on just one of their last 10 opportunities with the man advantage. Crosby leads the team with 17 power-play points (three goals, 14 assists).
Even though superstar center Evgeni Malkin has returned from injury and veteran forward Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow were acquired in the week leading up to the trade deadline, the Penguins are a far weaker team from an offensive standpoint when Crosby doesn't play.
Crosby's presence on the first line gives head coach Dan Bylsma two of the toughest lines for opposing teams to defend.
The top line of Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Crosby was the best trio in the NHL when all three were together. Kunitz ranks fourth in scoring with 46 points and Dupuis has 18 goals, which ties the second-highest total of his career. Most of this success can be attributed to Crosby's playmaking ability and the space he creates for his wingers.
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These players are far less productive when Crosby is unable to play (one goal between them in four games without Crosby), and with star winger James Neal battling a concussion (per the Penguins) and elite offensive defenseman Kris Letang also injured, Pittsburgh's scoring depth is far worse than it was just a few weeks ago.
While Crosby is unavailable, these are the possible line combinations that Bylsma could use:
Brandon Sutter is the only bottom-six forward who has scored more than six goals for the Penguins in 2013. Since Iginla and Morrow joined the team, they have combined for 10 games played with a goal and an assist. Morrow, in particular, has not played well offensively since the Penguins acquired him, with zero goals scored and an average of one shot per game.
If Crosby and/or Neal miss games in the playoffs, the Penguins will have just one elite line for teams to shut down, which makes Pittsburgh a much easier team to beat, especially since it lacks the physicality and toughness needed for the grind/intensity of the NHL playoffs.
Two of the three games that Crosby has missed were against the Rangers, who were 0-3 against the Penguins in 2013 before dominating them 6-1 on Wednesday and then losing in a shootout on Friday. Those two games proved how ineffective offensively the Penguins can be when Crosby is out of the lineup and his team plays a tough, physical opponent that has a top goaltender like the Rangers.
Crosby's absence from the lineup is especially obvious in the offensive zone, where the Penguins have been far less creative and opportunistic without their top playmaker. Pittsburgh's chemistry has also been poor over the last three games because Bylsma has been forced to repeatedly change up his lines due to Crosby's absence and the team's other injuries.
When No. 87 is injured, the Penguins also lose an important faceoff man. Crosby ranks fourth in the NHL with 453 faceoff wins and he ranks third in total draws taken with 834. Whenever Bylsma needs someone to win an important draw at either end of the ice, Crosby is usually the one who takes it.
Crosby even contributes on the penalty kill by taking defensive-zone faceoffs, and with the Penguins ranking 21st in penalty killing, not having a reliable faceoff man is something to worry about. Malkin wins just 46.1 percent of his faceoffs, so there's no question that Pittsburgh is weakened in this part of the game without its captain.
Malkin is an elite forward and one of the best players on the planet, but when he missed nine games in March because of an injury, the Penguins still averaged 2.88 goals per game and had a 9-0 record because Crosby was capable of carrying the team offensively.
With Malkin playing much worse than he did last season when he dominated with a league-leading 109 points to win the Hart Trophy, Crosby's absence is an even larger concern for Pittsburgh. In some of Malkin's shifts recently, it doesn't look like he's 100 percent healthy because that "take-over-the-game" factor we often see from him is missing on a nightly basis.
Crosby elevates Malkin's game along with the rest of his teammates, and he is also a proven playoff performer.
The 25-year-old forward has 90 points (33 goals, 57 assists) in 68 career playoff games, and his 1.32 playoff points/game average leads all active NHL players. Not having their most reliable playoff performer would put Penguins forwards such as Neal, Morrow, Iginla, Kunitz and Dupuis under a lot more pressure to be productive offensively during the postseason.
The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins will be the toughest opponents for the Penguins during the playoffs, and Crosby has five points (two goals, three assists) in four total games (all wins) between these two opponents.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, Crosby isn't the only player whose health issues could prevent the team from making a championship run this year. Injuries to Neal, Letang and Paul Martin could greatly impact this team's performance in the playoffs.
Since the start of the 2007-08 season, Crosby has played in the playoffs four times (including two Stanley Cup Final appearances) and the Penguins have been knocked out in the first round just once (last season to Philadelphia).
If Crosby is unable to return for the start of the postseason, Pittsburgh could be eliminated in the first round for the third consecutive year, especially if its first-round opponent is the Rangers or the Washington Capitals. It's impossible to replace a player of Crosby's caliber.