Count former Penguins player and coach Eddie Olczyk among those who foresee them as one the eight teams left standing from the Eastern Conference when the postseason arrives in April.
"I do expect them to be in the playoffs," Olczyk said this week. "It's going to be a battle, but I can see them making it because of the people they have and the belief I have in Marc-Andre [Fleury, the goaltender]."
Olczyk, the Chicago Blackhawks' television analyst and lead NHL analyst for the Versus cable network, worked the Penguins' 3-0 victory against the New York Rangers Sunday for NBC-TV and will be in Montreal this weekend for the All-Star Game, in which Penguins center Evgeni Malkin will play.
Malkin, with 70 points, and ailing Sidney Crosby (knee), with 60, are the top two scorers in the league at the All-Star break, but the Penguins are 10th in the conference, matching Florida's 50 points but with two more games played.
Olczyk, fired by the Penguins in December 2005, halfway through Crosby's rookie season and before Malkin joined the club from Russia or Fleury had a chance to get much NHL experience, isn't an advocate of another change involving coach Michel Therrien.
"This isn't about coaching; this is about who they are and the way they have to play to move forward," he said.
"I thought they would be a little bit higher [in the standings] just because of the players they have. Saying that, I'm not surprised to see them battling because of the amount of people they've lost."
That would be players lost to free agency last summer, such as wingers Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, and others to injury this season, including top defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who has yet to play after shoulder surgery.
"I said before the season I was interested in watching what the Penguins did," Olczyk said. "I don't know if you can say they are underachieving. Could they or should they be in the playoff picture right now? That's debatable.
"Can you make the playoffs in the first 20 games? Probably not. Can you miss the playoffs in the first 20 games? Maybe.
"But they're playing to their personnel and their style under Michel Therrien right now."
After a rough stretch, the Penguins won three of four games before losing against Carolina Tuesday. They don't play again until Wednesday, when the Rangers again come to Mellon Arena.
Fleury will be a key, Olczyk said.
"Early on, goaltending was very good at times, and then it was average," he said.
In addition, those around Malkin and Crosby need to take advantage of the two stars.
"Sid and Malkin are go-getters," Olczyk said.
"Malkin is a better scorer than playmaker and Sid is a better playmaker or distributor than goal-scorer. But you have two guys who can do both really well. To have those guys, and you look at the depth they had last year, it's a challenge to play with world-class players."
"If you have the ability to put the puck in the net, [Crosby] is going to find you, but you have to be able to take the puck and not be surprised by plays he makes to find you. It's easier said than done. And, if you're a goal-scorer like Malkin, you only can do so much by yourself."
Getting Gonchar back from October shoulder surgery, perhaps next month or early in March, could help considerably, he said.
"It's going to take him some time, but he can make a difference on the power play, be a puck mover," Olczyk said. "That will be a big impact."
Forwards--Bryan Little, Atlanta; Milan Lucic, Boston; Andrew Cogliano, Edmonton; Brandon Dubinsky, N.Y. Rangers; z-David Perron, St. Louis; Devin Setoguchi, San Jose; Mason Raymond, Vancouver; y-Nicklas Backstrom, Washington.
Defensemen--Mark Staal, N.Y. Rangers; Kris Letang, Penguins.
Goaltender--Erik Ersberg, Los Angeles.
Forwards--Blake Wheeler, Boston; Kris Versteeg, Chicago; James Neal, Dallas; Michael Frolik, Florida; Mikkel Boedker, Phoenix; Patrik Berglund, St. Louis; Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay.
Defensemen--Drew Doughty, Los Angeles; Luke Schenn, Toronto.
Goaltender--Steve Mason, Columbus.
y-will not play; z-added to roster
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 263-1721.