Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

And there it was, a bright flash of brilliance against the winter sky… The rarest of sights… Coming hence only one in 82…

It’s Crosby’s Comet!

And now, just as suddenly as it appeared, it is gone. Maybe it will show up again next year…

I’m sure that’s how Pittsburgh fans felt when their Sainted Wunderkind took the ice for those 8 games earlier this month, netting 2 goals and adding 10 assists to put him ahead of all but 9 of his teammates on the scoring chart. Which, when you think about it, either says a lot about Sidney Crosby, or a HELL of a lot about the rest of the Penguins.

But one thing to note about the Pens’ stats sheet is its sheer length: 29 skaters have put on the black and gold so far this season, due in no small part to the list of players with injuries stretching nearly as long as the stat sheet. At present, the following players who are NOT named “Crosby” are out of the lineup for Pittsburgh: Robert Bortuzzo, Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek (bless you…), Richard Park, and Jordan Staal. Saying that we’re playing the farm team tonight is not that far off the mark.

But with the absence of many roster mainstays, the people who have to step up are, in fact, doing so. Evgeni Malkin has 15 goals and 36 points to put him among the leaders in the NHL scoring race. In Malkin’s last outing against Buffalo he made the hats rain down with 3 goals on the night. Left winger James Neal is taking advantage of the extra ice time, and delivering with 14 goals and 32 points, including 3G and 3A in his last 4 games.

Defense is the main problem these days, as 3 of Pittsburgh’s top 4 D-men are watching from the sidelines. They are relying on assistant captain Brooks Orpik to lead a makeshift assemblage of rookies, journeymen and career minor-leaguers and help slow the pace of shots fired at the Pittsburgh goal. This will be an excellent opportunity for Chicago snipers, if they can exploit this weakness.

But of course the team wouldn’t be anywhere without the consistent play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 16-7-2 with a 2.30 GAA and .914 save percentage, despite the bulk of his veteran blueliners watching from the press box. We’ve had trouble solving him in the past: it took a shootout for the ‘Hawks to come out with a 3-2 victory in these two teams’ last meeting this past February. But he’s not impenetrable — Detroit got 3 past him on only 24 shots just last week.

The Penguins are 2-3-0 since The Next One’s most recent placement in IR, though they come into tonight psyched after a 8-3 win over Buffalo. Malkin is on fire, and will be the Pens’ most dangerous weapon. Even without his usual supporting cast, he is scoring goals whether the team wins or loses. Having one of our top defensemen out of the lineup will make it difficult to contain him. And on that note…

Brent Seabrook traveled with the Blackhawks to Pittsburgh yesterday, though I would hazard a guess that this was wishful thinking on the part of the coaches. If Seabrook is suffering with concussion symptoms (nobody with the team has confirmed this, as is tradition), then by regulation he is to be off the ice for one full week. So, of course, nobody is saying boo-all about his condition or the possibility that he could play this evening.

If I were a betting man, I’d say we are left in suspense until it’s time to hand in the rosters, at which time we will learn that Seabrook’s name is not on it. Time will tell.

Seabrook joins Dan Carcillo on the list of Blackhawks who will not be in uniform against Pittsburgh, which means the list of players who will be in uniform will probably include John Scott, Bryan Bickell and Jeremy Morin. Morin was called up from Rockford on Sunday, and spent most of his 10:23 of ice time on the left side of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Nice spot to be in for your season debut, especially with oft-tried-and-never-quite-fitting-in Viktor Stalberg looking jealously on from his fourth-line relegation.

But finding a balance on defense will be Head Coach Joel Quenneville’s primary mission tonight, with Seabrook’s absence putting a hole in our blue line big enough to drive a flaming Zamboni through. Expect Q to rely heavily on Nick Leddy and Niklas Hjalmarsson to pick up extra minutes, as they did last game. And against a speedy team like Pittsburgh I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sami Lepisto suit up for tonight’s match in leiu of the Snuffleupagus-like John Scott, who exhibits all the nimble dexterity of a rusty backhoe.

But to more pleasant topics! As we, here, wallow in the mire that is the injury to one of our top players, the rest of the league is cowering in fear. Not only are the Blackhawks leading the league in points, but they now sit atop ESPN’s NHL Power Rankings. Not bad for a team whose starting goaltender has been riding the pine for the last 5 games, eh?

And what ABOUT Ray Emery? When we endured his nightmarish 7-goals-against effort when facing Edmonton a month ago, surely all of the Blackhawks faithful were silently wondering how Alexander Salak was faring down in Rockford. Well, apparently that game was a wake-up call for Emery, for since then he has stopped 176 of 188 shots against, good for a .936 save percentage and a 2.00 GAA. There are six wins in those six starts, plus two relief efforts in which he let nothing go past him.

When Emery was first summoned to Chicago on a tryout contract, fans and pundits alike looked at his 7-2-0 effort last season tending goal for Anaheim and wondered, “Could it be?” Well folks, as of now Emery’s record with the Blackhawks is 9-1-0. It not only could be, it is. Coach Qstache is the kind of guy to ride a train until it comes off the rails; as of right now, the starting job is Emery’s to lose.

Early start tonight with it being an east coast game, 6:30 CST for the puck drop. The game is being featured nationally on VERSUS (soon to be The NBC Sports Network, for those of you following at home) and also on TSN2 for Blackhawks fans north of the border; WGN AM-720 has the game on broadcast radio; XM subscribers can find the game on channel 213; Sirius Premiere customers should scroll to channel 212.

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