The Bear Essentials By Mark Feldman, 98.5 The Sports Hub

BOSTON (CBS) – With the regular season around the corner, it’s time to take a look at the top Eastern Conference teams that will give your Boston Bruins their fair share of difficulties this year.

In January of 2011, when Sidney Crosby went down after suffering his second concussion in less than a week, hockey fans lost faith in the Pittsburgh Penguins. One month later with the subtraction of Evgeni Malkin, the team may as well have quit.

They didn’t.

The Penguins continued to win games, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference. Today, although Crosby still hasn’t returned, there is little reason to doubt that the Pens will be a damn good team this year.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Depth

On January 5th, when “Sid the Kid” suffered his second concussion in five days, the Pittsburgh Penguins still had 41 games remaining in their regular season. You would think that once the NHL’s top forward was taken out of the game, his team would utterly collapse; that wasn’t the case.

In fact, the Pens went on to win 23 out of 41 games and finished first in their division. They won more games during the regular season last year (49) than they did in 2008 (45) when they won the Stanley Cup.

Oh yeah. Did I mention that their Con Smythe star center, Evgeni Malkin was out due to knee a knee injury as well? The reason behind Pittsburgh’s success is due to depth. Key players like Kris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy and Kris Letang all stepped up during the regular season, averaging 48 points between them.

When the top guns went down, Pittsburgh had enough depth to move forward.

Read: Mark Feldman’s Blog: The Bear Essentials

2. The Core is Back

Besides Crosby and Alex Goligoski, who was traded to the Dallas Stars, the top ten points leaders on the team are all back.

The list includes Pascal Dupuis, Jordan Staal, Kris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy and good ol’ “Geno”, Evgeni Malkin. If the team was able to finish first in their division with less than they have now, who’s to say that they can’t do it again?

Oh and one more thing, Marc Andre Fleury is back. After posting a .918 goals against average, one of the highest averages in his career, Fleury remains a top-tier goalie in the NHL; don’t discount him.

3. If No Sid, At Least There’s Geno

After suffering a knee injury in early February, Malkin has been focused on coming back with full force. He spent his summer bulking up, doing some “Rocky-style” training.

Well maybe he wasn’t lifting logs and running through snowy mountains, but nonetheless he’s been training. Hard.

Malkin has been mostly working on his conditioning and explosiveness in an attempt to return to his old form. Sure, he didn’t have a great first half to the regular season last year, posting a career worst -4, but this time seems different. From his off-season training, you can tell that the 25-year-old center is anxious to get back on the ice. His eagerness is evident from his complete preseason dominance; the Pens are now 5-0.

If all is well with his knee, expect Malkin to return to his old self, which is never good for other teams.

Read: The Beasts Of The East

You can argue all day that Sidney Crosby makes the Pittsburgh Penguins a good team but facts are facts. Pittsburgh can win without him and win they have. With Malkin, Fleury, Letang, Kennedy and Staal all back and ready to go, don’t be surprised if this team finishes next to your Boston Bruins in the overall standings.

Follow Mark Feldman on Twitter @mfsports21


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