Sidney Crosby's third career hat trick lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins in their latest game, just another example of the improved goal-scoring touch Crosby has shown early this season.
Pittsburgh would love to see its captain keep up his impressive offensive pace -- particularly for the next two or three weeks.
That's how long the Penguins are expected to be without Evgeni Malkin, and they'll look for Crosby to pick up the slack with the reigning NHL scoring champion sidelined beginning Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Little has gone wrong for Pittsburgh (10-2-0) this season, but key injuries are starting to mount for the defending Stanley Cup champions. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar suffered a broken left wrist earlier this month and is out four to six weeks, and the Penguins learned Thursday they would be without Malkin -- the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP last season -- for two to three weeks due to a strained right shoulder.
Malkin, who has played in 254 consecutive regular-season games, originally hurt the shoulder a week to 10 days ago and had been trying to play through it.
"Obviously he has played with it and could gut it out, which is what Geno would be apt to do," coach Dan Bylsma said. "At this time of the year the concern is the player and this is a precautionary measure."
Malkin, who had 113 points last season, is tied for third on the team with four goals along with defenseman Alex Goligoski, who he helped set up for a score against Montreal on Wednesday. That goal was largely inconsequential as Crosby had already scored three times to lift the Penguins to a 6-1 victory.
Crosby, who scored 33 goals last season, is on pace for 62 in 2009-10.
"When you get three goals in a game, that kind of changes the look of your (season) numbers early on," Crosby said. "I'm trying to shoot the puck when I get chances and trying to not pass up good shots, but it's just been a matter of the puck going in early on."
Gonchar and Malkin won't be the only key players missing against Columbus (6-5-0). Pittsburgh will also be without Tyler Kennedy, second behind Crosby with five goals, for a second straight game due to an undisclosed injury.
The Blue Jackets have had a difficult time keeping the puck out of their net lately, allowing 26 goals in losing four of five. Last season's Calder Trophy winner and Vezina Trophy runner-up Steve Mason started four of those contests, going 1-3-0 with a 5.00 goals-against average.
Columbus returned from a four-game road trip Wednesday and led Phoenix 1-0 after 20 minutes, but the Coyotes took over from there to win 4-1.
"We're paying for the errors we make. We're not doing the things in the competitive areas that we need to do," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We had a decent first period and then the turnover machine in the second. We're going to have to roll up our sleeves and dig in."
The Jackets can start by shoring up their penalty killing. After limiting opponents to one goal in 29 power-play chances over the first seven games, Columbus has given up 10 goals in its last 19 times short-handed.
Mason, who made 38 saves in a 4-3 shootout win at home over the Penguins on March 12, will start for Columbus on Friday. Pittsburgh will give Marc-Andre Fleury a night off in favor of backup Brent Johnson, who's 9-2-2 with a 2.03 GAA against the Blue Jackets.