A rash of mid-season injuries has left the Penguins uncharacteristically soft up the middle, a potentially mortal wound to the team's' championship ambitions this season.
Gone is captain Sidney Crosby, who lead the league in scoring before he suffered a concussion in early January, possibly keeping him out until March. Gone is Evgeni Malkin, who suffered torn knee ligaments last week, likely putting him on the shelf for several months. Gone, too, is rookie Mark Letestu, a revelation at center this season, who injured himself in New York last week and is likely out until mid-March.
Finding more playing time in their stead are Jordan Staal, Maxime Talbot and Dustin Jeffrey. The difference, while negligible while playing against the Islanders and Sabres of the league, was brutally clear in Washington on Sunday.
Minus three of their top four centers, the Penguins still operate as an aggressive, disciplined unit. They know their system and their schemes well. The Pens still get the puck deep and work a good forecheck, and backcheckers regularly create neutral-zone turnovers. Most of the machine's cogs are still in place. The problem is that against a big, skilled team like the Capitals, the Penguins simply lack the skill to create enough chances or deny them.
The second period became a goaltending clinic for Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins, unable to clear either side of Fleury's crease, surrendered several point-blank opportunities to their opposition. The Capitals pelted Pittsburgh's net while running rampant behind it.
At the other end of the ice, Michal Neuvirth remained relatively untested. Most shots from the Penguins' offered marginal threat at best and, despite this, Neuvirth still surrendered juicy rebounds.
The game's shot chart clearly illustrates the difference in offensive chances from the teams. Yes, the Capitals only out-shot the Penguins by two, but look at where chances came from. The Penguins, clearly relying on support from their defense, were forced to shoot from high and outside. The most dangerous areas, around the net and in the lower area of the slot, are bare in comparison to the Capitals, who clearly did most of their damage from there.
The center position is one of the most vital in hockey, relied on to not only be the focal point of offensive buildup, but also to get deep and help support the defense. Going from basing your top lines of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to Jordan Staal and Dustin Jeffrey is an obvious step down. Against a team like Washington, it's a tumble down a flight of steps.
Clearly, the Penguins are a playoff team. Their recent winning streak showed a team that still plays aggressive defense while also displaying how dominant Fleury can be while on his game. Even while depleted, the Penguins are still more than a match for over half of the Eastern Conference.
But the cream of the crop? The Capitals? Flyers? Lightning? At a certain point, coaching and effort can't overcome overwhelming talent, and right now, the Penguins are simply outgunned.
Crosby should return this year, but following a lengthy absence from a very dangerous, unpredictable type of injury, who knows if he'll be at his best? And Letestu, despite a good year, is no Malkin. Nor is Staal. Right now, the Penguins are a slightly-above-average team, and their three-center model has been shattered.
For the Pens to make a run in the playoffs, they will need to bring in some reinforcements before the NHL's trade deadline on February 28. With $8.7 million in cap space freed because of Malkin's injury, money is there to bring in some players. The question is, who?