PHILADELPHIA -- The 5-4 victory Thursday night against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center didn't just wrap up the first half of the Penguins' season.
It presented those 24 games in microcosm.
The first period, when the Penguins were listless and unfocused and fell behind Philadelphia by three goals, was a reminder of how bad they can look at times, a point made previously in losses against the likes of Carolina and the New York Islanders.
But the final 40 minutes, when the Penguins ran off four unanswered goals and seized control of a game that had appeared to get away from them, underscored just how impressive -- and, occasionally, dominant -- they can be when their game is in sync and their attention to detail is sharp.
They played that way often enough during the first two dozen games that they will enter the second half of their season, which begins with a game at 7:08 p.m. today against Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, with a 16-8 record. That's good for first place in the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference.
"You're always striving to be better," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "But, if you would have told us at the beginning that we'd leading the division and second in the conference, I think anyone would be semi-satisfied.
"They'd probably say they want to be first in the conference, but, to be honest, especially in a shortened season, you don't know what to expect."
That certainly has been true of the Penguins. Their record shows that they have played well, more often than not, so far, but they've absorbed some gruesome defeats that exposed soft spots in their game.
One of the most conspicuous in recent weeks has been the trouble they can have near their net, an area of the ice where opponents have been able to have their way with disturbing regularity.
"We definitely have to be better around our net," winger Pascal Dupuis said.
"We have to be better in the goals-against."
The Penguins are allowing an average of 2.96 goals per game. Going into games on Friday, that was tied for the eighth-highest figure in the league.
Matchup: Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:08 p.m. today, Air Canada Centre.
TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. James Reimer for Maple Leafs.
Penguins: Lost both visits to Toronto last season, but were 3-0-1 in previous four. ... RW James Neal ranks second in the NHL with five game-winning goals. ... Are 6-2 when tied after two periods.
Maple Leafs: Are 6-5 at home, where they have won two games in a row. ... RW Matt Frattin is one of the league's most-accurate shooters, with seven goals on 18 shots (38.9 percent). ... Home power play is among least productive in NHL, with six goals in 47 attempts.
Hidden stat: Penguins are 38-6-3 in March since Dan Bylsma became coach.
That is offset somewhat by an offense that averages a league-leading 3.54 goals per game, but, for those who believe solid defense is critical to winning championships, the Penguins' sometimes-spotty play in their own end is cause for concern.
"We have, in general, improved our team defense, but we've gotten away from certain things, as far as support in our zone, stuff like that," defenseman Paul Martin said.
"We need to be a little better around the net, as far as giving up rebounds and goals like that."
A little more muscle might help in that regard, but Orpik suggested that altering their mindset could do the same, because he believes the Penguins occasionally are guilty of "trying to outscore teams instead of trying to out-defend teams" after taking a lead.
Their defensive issues are compounded by subpar penalty killing. After being one of the league's top units in recent seasons, the Penguins have slipped to 20th in the rankings, with a success rate of just 79.6 percent.
The departure of Jordan Staal last summer likely is a factor in that, but the Penguins have the personnel to be more effective when they're short-handed.
Although generating goals has been one of the Penguins' fortes, getting more consistent contributions from the third and fourth lines would make the offense even more imposing. Fourth-liners Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale, for example, have combined to go 44 man-games without a goal.
For all their blemishes, though, the Penguins have staked out their lofty spot in the standings on merit.
Sidney Crosby is the league's top point-producer. Chris Kunitz is scoring goals with stunning frequency. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was outstanding for much of the first half.
Kris Letang is the highest-scoring defenseman in the NHL. The power play is the league's fourth best, converting 25.8 percent of its chances. Injuries have cost them just 17 man-games. And, oh yeah, Evgeni Malkin, the league's defending scoring champion and MVP, is still on the payroll.
General manager Ray Shero's history suggests he will at least fine-tune his roster by the April 3 trade deadline, and the moves he makes will influence how much of a force the Penguins can expect to be once the playoffs begin.
Even if there are only minor roster tweaks, however, the Penguins have shown that, for all their flaws, they are capable of playing at a level few clubs can reach.
"We still have a lot to work on," Dupuis said. "At the same time, we know what we've gone through, and we're in a pretty good spot right now."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published March 9, 2013 5:00 AM