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Not long after Sidney Crosby left the Penguins line-up with concussion problems, it became clear that No. 87's head case was not going to be a short-term issue. Most Penguins fans—not strangers to serious health-scares and even outright tragedy within the organization—reacted appropriately.

The general thinking was along the lines of, “The Pens will miss Sid, but let's get the kid healthy and see what they can do without him.”

Then Evgeni Malkin tore his ACL and was lost for the remainder of the season.

Then Arron Asham. Then Chris Kunitz. Then Mark Letestu.

For a stretch in February, the Penguins had a stunning 10 forwards either injured or suspended. Asham, Mike Comrie, Matt Cooke, Crosby, Eric Godard, Dustin Jeffrey, Kunitz, Letestu, Malkin and Eric Tangradi all missed multiple games.

A couple guys came back and the Pens acquired two legitimate goal-scoring wingers in Alex Kovalev and James Neal... but then Brooks Orpik broke his hand.

And Matt Cooke got suspended again.

And Kovy and Neal managed just two goals between them in their first 29 combined games in Pittsburgh.

Yet as the playoff picture comes into view... there are the Penguins, winners of more games than any other team in the Eastern Conference.

Oh, we figured they'd make the playoffs without Geno and even if Sid didn't come back. But even the staunchest Pens supporters were looking at this spring's playoffs as a way for some of the younger guys to gain postseason experience. The Pens would re-load next season when a healthy 71 and 87 were back on the ice.

Even the trades for Neal and Kovalev were made with at least one eye on the future. The Penguins dealt from a position of strength for the 23-year-old Neal, who has two seasons remaining before he's even a restricted free agent; the team did not give up much for Kovalev.

But as the playoffs are set to begin, the Penguins are quite obviously one of the top teams in the east, whether they are the top seed or the fourth seed.

What once seemed completely impossible is now a legitimate conversation. Orpik, Kunitz and Letestu are back on the ice. Even without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins still have two of the best hockey players in the league in Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. Crosby may or may not return this season, but either way, the team's goal remains the same: Win now. Not games, not a playoff series or two... win the Stanley Cup. This year.

Next season? When Malkin and Crosby return, and players like Tangradi, Jeffrey and others will enter the season healthy and armed with solid NHL experience? Win then, too.

Coach Dan Bylsma—whose team never found its A-game last year—has managed to get two different teams to their A-games this year: the October-through-December Pens, with Crosby, Malkin and a defense still learning to play together; and now this new version, with Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz and a blue line that has turned into one of the best in team history.

The main reason the Penguins have remained atop the Eastern Conference is, of course, Marc-Andre Fleury, who has become one of the best goaltenders in the world.

To make a deep run in the playoffs, the defense must continue to make it difficult for opponents to find open ice in the Pens' zone. And Fleury will have to continue to stand up to the immense pressure of winning low-scoring games; contests in which his team may not be able to manage more than two or (on a good night) three goals.

In other words, exactly what they've done for the past two months.

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