Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari

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Q: With their many injuries and the strength of the Atlantic Division this year compared to last, it's not far-fetched to conclude that the accomplishments of this year's squad exceed those of last year's team. They just keep rolling along, despite the obstacles.

Stephen Zielinski, Allison Park

MOLINARI: It would be wrong, in just about every way, to downplay all that the Penguins accomplished last season. To go from 58 points in 2005-06 to 105 in 2006-07 represents one of the largest single-season improvements in NHL history, and is quite a feat.

Nonetheless, the Penguins' ability to compete for first place in the Eastern Conference this season, despite losing so many key players for extended periods and the personnel upgrades some Atlantic teams made for 2007-08, is remarkable. It's been apparent for several years that the Penguins were assembling the talent needed to develop into an exceptional team -- which is precisely what should happen when a club picks first or second in four consecutive entry drafts -- but that just makes their ability to thrive when guys like Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury were removed from the mix by injuries all the more impressive.

Players like Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, among many others, responded to the challenges rooted in Crosby's absence, and Ty Conklin's play while Fleury was out has earned him a niche in franchise lore, regardless of where he plays in future seasons. What's more, many of the players the Penguins have summoned from their farm team in Wilkes-Barre have made meaningful contributions, even though most have been cast in low-profile roles.

The belief here, going into the season, was that the Penguins would finish with between 95 and 98 points, with the decline caused mostly by the improvement other Atlantic clubs made. There were times during autumn and early winter when that projection seemed unduly optimistic (remember, the Penguins didn't go above .500 for good until they beat Phoenix Dec. 3) and it surely would have been scaled back had it been known that Crosby and Fleury, among others, would miss significant chunks of the season because of injuries.

With nearly a month of regular-season games left, it's a little early to pass judgment on 2007-08 -- especially when management raised the stakes by acquiring Marian Hossa, a move clearly intended to fuel a lengthy playoff run -- but what the Penguins have accomplished so far probably has exceeded all reasonable expectations, under the circumstances. And one can only imagine where they might be if their road penalty-killing didn't rank among the worst in the NHL, or if they had come somewhere close to breaking even on faceoffs.

Q: What's the record for empty net goals in a season? Malkin has to be getting close.

Todd Thurheimer, Boston

MOLINARI: While the NHL keeps track of empty-netters, a league official said it does not treat them as an official stat, and thus does not recognize a formal record for the most scored in one season.

Malkin, though, had a league-high five going into last night's games, putting him one ahead of Daniel Alfredsson of Ottawa and Boston's Chuck Kobasew. Jere Lehtinen of Dallas and Ottawa's Dany Heatley tied for the NHL lead in 2006-07 with four each.


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