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Malkin must step up with Penguins star Crosby out with sprained ankle

MONTREAL - Sidney Crosby's sprained ankle has turned the spotlight on the Pittsburgh Penguins' other young star - Evgeni Malkin.

Crosby left a game against Tampa Bay in the first period on Friday night with a high ankle sprain. While there is no word yet on how long he will be gone, the injury usually takes a month or more to heal.

The reigning NHL scoring champion and most valuable player was to have tests done in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but getting a definite prognosis may take until early next week.

Coach Michel Therrien's first reaction was to move 21-year-old Malkin into Crosby's spot at centre on the top line. Malkin had been playing left-wing with Crosby.

"Yes, there will be more attention on him because he's a good player," said Therrien as his club prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.

"They were playing really well together, Crosby and Malkin. They combined really well and were playing with a lot of confidence. Now Evgeni's going to go back as a centreman, his natural position. He's a special player and we have a lot of confidence in him."

The Penguins were riding a 9-0-1 streak, but went flat after Crosby was injured early in the first period in an awkward crash into the boards.

The Lighting won 3-0, handing red-hot goaltender Ty Conklin his first defeat (10-1-1) of the season.

Malkin tried to pick up his team with some daring individual efforts, but was held without a point for the first time in seven games.

"That's normal with Sid out," said defenceman Ryan Whitney. "He tried to split the defence a few times and you want to think that Sid's about the only guy who can do that with his quickness.

"He's got to realize that that's not going to happen every game and I think he will. I think he just wanted to get us going because we really couldn't get a goal."

Whitney is confident that Malkin has the skills to take over as the go-to guy.

"He's wanted to be the No. 1 centre and he's got the chance now," Whitney said. "He obviously has the talent to do it.

"It's going to be no surprise if he steps up and continues playing the way he has."

Therrien wants a group effort, with forwards like Malkin, Petr Sykora, Colby Armstrong and the struggling Ryan Malone contributing more goals.

He said the lines will be juggled, but the system won't change.

"You don't replace Sidney Crosby - he's the best player in the NHL," the coach said. "Especially the way he was playing the last month and a half, when he was better than last year.

"But a lot of guys are going to have to step up their games, take on new roles and raise their game up to the challenge we're facing right now."

Crosby, with 20 points in his previous 12 games, had just moved into a tie for the NHL scoring lead. Now he could be facing the first serious injury of his career.

He missed one game with the flu in his rookie year in 2005-06, and sat out three games with a groin injury last season. The Penguins were 0-2-2 with Crosby out of the lineup.

He had ankle trouble in the pre-season, but had not missed a regular-season game.

Therrien said his young team adjusted successfully earlier in the season when defenceman Mark Eaton was injured and, thanks to Conklin, found a way to win without No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who also has a sprained ankle.

Fleury was to a miss a 19th game on Saturday - exactly the number that Canadiens winger Chris Higgins sat out with a high ankle sprain last season. It took Higgins at least a month after his return to hit full stride.

"I don't wish it on anyone - that's the hardest thing to come back from," said Higgins. "Sometimes you think you're ready and then you have a little setback.

"It's tough being patient when you see your team play night after night. It's tough mentally. but you have to work through it."

Malone said the team will need tighter defence and strong effort from every player to win enough games in Crosby's absence to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Pittsburgh native is looking forward to playing a more offensive role on Malkin's line after being held to 18 points in his first 41 games this season.

He said Malkin has the tools to fill in for Crosby.

"He's like Sid - any shift he can take over and make a big play for us," Malone said. "If he doesn't put too much pressure on himself, he'll be fine."

The Penguins had planned to skip the usual morning skate on the day of a game, but with Crosby out, Therrien had most of his players on the ice.

The atmosphere was businesslike, rather than gloomy.

"Lets not beat around the bush, Sid's a big part of our team," said defenceman Darryl Sydor. "But when you have a Malkin who can step up and be our centre, that's a pretty good thing.

"We've just got to play a lot more solid game - get the puck at the net and keep it simple. We still have a good team."


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