Adjusting to life without Crosby … for a while


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Sidney Crosby -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

NEWARK, N.J. -- Jake Guentzel says he was aware that Sidney Crosby had been playing with a sports hernia since training camp.

Good thing Crosby confided in him, because nothing Crosby did on the ice during the Penguins' first 17 games suggested that he was operating at anything less than 100 percent.

"You don't see much difference with him (when he's healthy)," Guentzel said. "He's on his game every night. That's why he's the top player in the world."

Crosby not only is the team's leading scorer, with five goals and 12 assists, but was its -- and arguably the league's -- best two-way player, a force all over the ice on almost every shift.

Crosby's season went on hold today, when he underwent surgery in Philadelphia to repair his sports hernia, a painful soft-tissue injury. His recovery is projected to take at least six weeks, which means the Penguins likely will be without him until around the first of next year, if not longer.

"It's really sad news today for us," Evgeni Malkin said.

The challenge for Crosby's teammates will be to keep the club in contention for a playoff spot until he returns. It doesn't seem like an unreasonable objective, given that the Penguins already have withstood significant lost-time injuries to the likes of Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad and Malkin.

"I've never been on a team that's been this unfortunate," Justin Schultz said. "But hopefully, we get them all out of the way now and stay healthy for the rest of the year."

Unfortunately for the Penguins, it's not as if teams have an injury quota that, once filled, allows them to go through the balance of a season in perfect health. Their man-games lost total will hit 70 when Crosby, Letang and Hornqvist miss their game against the Devils Friday at 7:08 p.m. at the Prudential Center, and will continue to climb.

Jim Rutherford said he does not plan to make any personnel moves because Crosby is sidelined, which means Malkin figures to be the team's dominant presence until he returns.

Malkin has a history of raising his performance level -- and his point production -- when Crosby is injured, and professes to be prepared to do it again.

"I understand, and try to do my best," he said. "It's not the first time I've been here without Sid. I know it's not easy, but I'm ready."

Having Malkin consistently play to the peak of his considerable abilities certainly could help the Penguins get through Crosby's absence, although the mantra that everyone has to elevate their game to compensate for not having Crosby spread through their locker room like a winter virus.

A case could be made, though, that what the Penguins need most is for guys who haven't produced as expected this season -- Galchenyuk probably is the most obvious example -- begin to play to their potential. Perhaps that's part of the reason he stayed on the ice for about a half-hour longer than most of his teammates after practice today.

"I know I have to be better," said Galchenyuk, who does not have a goal in nine appearances in 2019-20.

While there's no way of knowing whether Crosby will be better once he returns to the lineup -- his injury will be gone, but its effects could linger for quite a while -- it is pretty remarkable that he was able to perform at such a consistently high level despite the pain he almost certainly had to be enduring.

"I'm not surprised," Sullivan said. "He's a real tough kid. He's got a passion for the game. He plays through a lot. Always has."

That's part of the reason the Penguins can't just shrug off being without him. Crosby's talent is obvious, but his intangibles are no less impressive.

"He's not easy to replace ... because he brings so much to the table for our team," Sullivan said. "But we do have capable guys. We just have to make sure that we stay on task and we work together to try to get results."

Also Thursday:

• Letang and Hornqvist still are recovering from their injuries and will not play against the Devils. Sullivan didn't offer much of an update on either beyond that both are "making progress."

• Galchenyuk has 299 career points in 499 games, so he could reach a pair of milestones Friday evening.

• The Penguins have been outscored, 11-8, in the opening period this season and have faced multiple-goal deficits in each of their past four games. "We need to be a lot more prepared," Bjugstad said. "A lot of these games, we've started off a little slow. As players, we need to have a little more urgency from the drop of the puck. ... We can't keep trying to fight back, claw back in these games."

• One thing against which the Penguins must guard is having players try to do too much because Crosby is out of the lineup. "That could be a thing," Guentzel said. "That's what we can't do. You have to play simple. You have to play the same way. You can't change too much. When you lose a player like that, it's tough."

• Here are the forward combinations the Penguins used at practice:
Jake Guentzel -- Evgeni Malkin -- Bryan Rust
Dominik Kahun -- Jared McCann -- Dominik Simon
Zach Aston-Reese -- Teddy Blueger -- Brandon Tanev
Alex Galchenyuk -- Nick Bjugstad -- Sam Lafferty

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