Molinari on the Penguins: First quarter of season shows Penguins still Eastern Conference contenders

A weekly look inside the team, the issues & the questions

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Most quarterly reports these days make for grim reading.

A lot of stuff about declining stock values and looming job losses and other depressing matters that make it necessary to talk an occasional investor in off the ledge.

Not so for the Penguins, though. The first quarter of their 2008-09 season has been, by almost any measure, an unabashed success.

Remember, this is a team that suffered some high-profile personnel losses after last season, when Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone headlined the list of players who moved on;

A team that faced the double-whammy of having lost in the Stanley Cup final and opening the season in Europe, two factors generally accepted to all but guarantee sluggish starts;

A team that was confronted by the daunting prospect of getting through much of the season without its two most skilled defensemen, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, while they recover from surgeries.

Despite all that, the Penguins -- notoriously slow starters in recent years, under any circumstances -- are 12-5-3, despite a disappointing 3-1 loss to Vancouver yesterday, and appear fully capable of again challenging for first place in the Eastern Conference.

A look at the highs, lows and in-betweens of Quarter No. 1:

The good

Evgeni Malkin: He's on the early short list of league MVP contenders, although being a Hart Trophy candidate in November doesn't count for much. Still, he has been the Penguins' best forward and one suspects the 13-game assists streak that ended last Tuesday won't be the only time Malkin strings together points over an extended period this season.

• Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins' top performer through the first month of the season and hasn't been bad lately, even though he began to allow a few suspect goals before being injured a week ago. His backup, Dany Sabourin, hasn't had a bad game yet and might start to draw attention from teams that will be in the market for a No. 1 goalie when he becomes a free agent next summer.

Faceoffs: For most of the past few years, the Penguins had a better chance of winning of winning the Powerball lottery than they did the average faceoff. This season, however, they are controlling 52 percent of their draws, good for sixth place in the league before last night's games. Mike Zigomanis, who seems to win almost every faceoff -- OK, just 65 percent of them -- deserves much of the credit, but Max Talbot (55.6 percent) Sidney Crosby (50) and Jordan Staal (50.2) have contributed to the improvement, too.

Road record: The Penguins have had a winning record on the road just six times since they entered the league in 1967, but with a 6-2-1 mark in their first nine away games, it's looks like No. 7 is now in progress.

Intangibles: The Penguins have won six games they trailed after two periods, which puts them halfway to the NHL record with three-quarters of the season to go. Falling behind so often obviously is a cause for concern, as was proven yesterday, but the resilience that allows them to transform deficits into victories is an admirable and valuable quality. Also, the undercurrent of tension between coach Michel Therrien and his players is far less apparent, if not gone altogether.

• Dirt and noise: It's not much more than a hole in the ground at this point, but that construction site opposite Mellon Arena is the best news of all for people who feared for the future of this franchise less than a year ago.

The bad

Even-strength scoring from the wings: You might not know it from watching the Penguins, but there's no NHL bylaw that prohibits wingers from scoring when they're playing five-on-five. No one could have expected the Penguins to lose Hossa and Malone without feeling it, but should a team with Crosby and Malkin have only two wingers, Tyler Kennedy and Miroslav Satan, with as many as five even-strength goals? Although Janne Pesonen might not be the answer, giving him a chance to prove it wouldn't be a bad idea.

Road power play: The Penguins' output with the man-advantage figured to suffer when Hossa left and Gonchar and Whitney weren't available, but they have scored on just four of 37 chances with the extra man in nine away games. Happily for the Penguins, their conversion rate of 10.8 percent should be easier to upgrade than it is to justify.

Grit: The Penguins aren't as tough to play against as they were a year ago, which isn't a surprise considering that guys like Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque, Adam Hall, Gary Roberts and Malone are working elsewhere these days. That could be more of a problem during the stretch drive and playoffs than it is in late autumn.

Mark Eaton: The injuries that forced him to miss so much of the past two seasons are healed, but the scars they left on his game remain. With the arrival of Philippe Boucher, Eaton is, without question, the seventh man on a seven-man unit. That could change if Eaton returns to his old form, but if he doesn't, he'll pretty much slide off the depth chart when Whitney and Gonchar return.

Short-handed goals: The Penguins are on pace to give up about 21 of them. That's bad enough in its own right, but will be doubly embarrassing if they allow more goals than they score when they have a man-advantage away from Mellon Arena.

The conflicting

Sidney Crosby: Says something about a guy, doesn't it, when he's just a few productive games away from claiming the top spot in the NHL scoring race and still is seen as capable of more? A lot more, at that. And there's every reason to believe that Crosby is.

Jordan Staal: He was a virtual non-factor through October, but has been downright dominant much of this month. The Penguins can't be blamed for craving a little consistency from him -- as long as it's the productive Staal who shows up on a regular basis.

Matt Cooke: He's the kind of guy opponents hate to play against, but a lot of them probably didn't mind much during the early weeks of the season. Lately, though, Cooke not only is handing out some pretty fair hits, but also has shown a bit of a scoring touch. Playing him with Staal and Kennedy looks like an inspired move.

Miroslav Satan: An almost-unstoppable force at times, like when he scored eight goals in 11 games, and an almost-invisible one at others. Satan has proven he's capable of playing very well all over the ice, but also that he can't be counted on to do it, game-in and game-out.

Dave Molinari can be reached at .


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