With Sidney Crosby out, Evgeni Malkin being counted on to pick up the superstar burden

Crosby's injury changes the series (1:52)

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are skeptical that Sidney Crosby returns to play the Capitals, which could change the complexion of the series. (1:52)

PITTSBURGH -- Having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the same roster is like having two alpha dogs in the same pack. They both want to be the best. They both want to lead the pack.

That they've both made it work together in a team concept with the Pittsburgh Penguins through the years says a lot how badly each wants to win.

The alpha mentality shows itself most when one is subtracted from the equation, as will be the case with Crosby (concussion) out for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Washington Capitals and Penguins, who'll face off Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

The other tends to step up in a major way.

"They're both driven people," said former Penguins coach Mike Johnston during a Tuesday phone conversation. "When you all of a sudden indicate to one, 'We don't have Sid' or 'We don't have Geno, we need you to do this,' they get excited about extra opportunities."

Especially, it seems, Malkin. His numbers for the Penguins without Crosby in the lineup are staggering. In 118 career Crosby-less games, he has 66 goals and 154 points. That's an average of 1.31 points per game, a pace that works out to a total of 107 points over an 82-game schedule, a total that would have won him the Art Ross Trophy this season by seven points.

The Penguins are getting good at stepping up without injured stars. When they lost star defenseman Kris Letang, they turned to a balanced attack on defense. Opposing coaches also noticed they simplified their game defensively.

"They don't ask their D-men to make a lot of high-value plays or second-level plays," said one NHL assistant coach on Tuesday. "They ask them to make the simple play -- it's off the boards or up in the air. Get it out of there, chuck the puck north and away you go."

It's an adjustment that might hurt the Penguins' puck-possession game and could help explain why they're blocking so many shots. It's also been pretty effective.

When the Penguins lost No. 1 goalie Matt Murray, they had the luxury of having a Stanley Cup winner in Marc-Andre Fleury ready to go. He has a .933 save percentage so far in this postseason, outplaying both opposing Vezina-caliber goalies in the Columbus Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington's Braden Holtby.

"He's a special kid," Johnston said of Fleury. "The team rallies around him ... He's still a very good goaltender."

But the only way the Penguins survive this time is if Malkin dominates as he often does in Crosby's absence -- as he did after Crosby went down in Game 3.

"Every time I watch that guy play, he keeps amazing me [with] his strength on the puck and the way he can take over games," said teammate Carl Hagelin of Malkin.

Some really good players in the league are content letting others take the lead and the spotlight. The San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau comes to mind: He never wanted to be ahead of Joe Thornton. Marian Hossa is the same way, content playing a supporting role to the Chicago Blackhawks stars, even if he's a star in his own right.

You get the sense with Malkin that it's not the same thing. The way he plays without Crosby suggests this is a guy looking to seize those moments, to remind people he's every bit the superstar as Crosby.

"He relishes becoming the guy," said one NHL coach. "When Sid is there, he knows where his back seat is, and when he's not there, it's like, 'I get to drive. This is awesome.'"

When he's driving and at his peak, Malkin takes opposing players on physically, often with the puck on his stick. He demands the puck by working hard to get open. He's more determined as a backchecker. Opposing coaches know if he's not engaged, it's best to keep him that way.

"You make that recognition when you play against him. 'Nobody wake him, let him drift away in this hockey game,'" said the coach. "Then there's the nights where you go in there and he's got the mojo going and he's into it."

He's been that way for most of these playoffs. Malkin leads the postseason with 15 points and on some level that might be a problem. He's already playing at a high level. He's already engaged. How much more does Malkin have to give?

The Penguins, who lead this second-round series 2-1, were all quick to say that Crosby's absence doesn't put the burden on Malkin's shoulders. It's a team game, and the responsibilities will be divided up evenly, they said.

But if there's one player who is capable of strapping this team on his back and making sure they get out of this round alive while Crosby heals, it's Malkin.

And he just might have to.