James Neal has contributed to the offensive output the Penguins needed in the first quarter of the season to succeed without star Sidney Crosby.
Jordan Staal and the Penguins found success while playing without Sidney Crosby in the first quarter of the season.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The snapshot provided by game No. 20 on the Penguins' regular-season schedule offered some legitimate cause for concern.
The big picture provided by their performance through most of the first quarter of the season did anything but.
And that was before the Penguins made it known that Sidney Crosby, who has not played since being diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6, will return to the lineup when the New York Islanders visit Consol Energy Center at 7:08 tonight.
To be sure, there was not a lot for coach Dan Bylsma and his staff to like about the Penguins' 3-2 loss Saturday night at Florida. Not the mental lapses and sloppy execution that plagued them through much of the game and certainly not the too-many-men-on-the-ice minor penalty late in the third period that led to the Panthers' winning goal.
Matchup: New York Islanders at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Rick DiPietro for Islanders.
Penguins: Are 2-0 against Islanders, including 3-2 shootout victory here Oct. 27. ... C Jordan Staal has four-game points streak. ... Have gone 8-2 in games decided by two or more goals.
Islanders: Are 0-4-2 on road, making them the only NHL club that has not won an away game. ... LW Matt Martin leads NHL with 77 hits. ... Have 1-8-1 record when giving up first goal.
Hidden stat: Islanders have been shut out four times this season, all on home ice.
Bylsma likely is not thrilled that his penalty-killers have allowed two goals in consecutive games, either. Or that the Penguins have lost back-to-back games in regulation for the second time this season.
But, while there will be plenty to discuss and work on when the Penguins gather this morning at Consol Energy Center for a game-day skate -- Bylsma called off the scheduled Sunday practice -- the Penguins hardly are in mortal peril of having their season go sour.
Despite sputtering through a two-game swing through Florida, they reached the quarter pole of the 2011-12 season with an 11-6-3 record that has let them to hover near the top of the overall standings.
"We feel like we've let some games slip away and we haven't been at our best for 60 minutes for very many games, but we're sitting in a good spot," left winger Matt Cooke said before the Panthers game. "You're never satisfied, but we're pretty pleased with where we're at."
They have gotten there, in large part, on the strength of strong goaltending, quality penalty-killing and excellent offensive output from high-profile forwards such as James Neal and Jordan Staal.
And the Penguins have done it all despite losing 85 man-games to injuries, 20 of those by Crosby.
While they have gotten used to not having their lineup of choice intact -- "It's been a while," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said -- the Penguins are intrigued by what they could accomplish when they get reasonably healthy, a goal that gets a lot closer to reality with Crosby back in the mix.
"You always think about it," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "You never really know. I think everyone's excited to see what we have when we put it all together.
"Until that happens, you go with the team you've got, and we've obviously played pretty well with the team we've got."
The proof of that, of course, is their record, but there is some other compelling statistical evidence to support Orpik's point. A sampling of their place in various league rankings going into Sunday:
• Goals for, 10th (2.85 per game).
• Goals against, 11th (2.40).
• Power-play efficiency, 11th (18.4 percent).
• Penalty-killing, 4th (88.7 percent).
• Shots per game, 5th, 33.1.
• Shots allowed per game, 4th, 27.5.
• Hits, 7th, 439.
What can't be quantified are the intangibles that have played a significant part in what the Penguins have accomplished.
Cooke pointed to "our resiliency and our ability to push harder in third periods" as the most impressive thing about this team, while Fleury cited the Penguins' "perseverance."
The Florida game, however, reinforced the point that the Penguins have plenty of room for improvement. Turns out Cooke was rather prescient when, early Saturday afternoon, he suggested that "the biggest concern for us -- and it's really easy for us to control -- is our 60-minute focus."
The Penguins did not do a very good job of maintaining that against the Panthers, which is why they flew home with nothing more than regrets to show for their visit to Florida.
Such hiccups are inevitable over an 82-game season. Contending for a championship, whether it is in the conference or the division, requires that there not be many more of them over the 62 games that remain.
"Consistency is something we have to worry about," Fleury said. "It's a long season. We have to keep getting points."