Young defenseman Olli Maatta has been perhaps the biggest surprise for the Penguins so far this season.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It all began a month ago tonight, with a 3-0 victory against New Jersey at Consol Energy Center.
Those two points were the first of many the Penguins would accumulate during the past 41/2 weeks, as they got on an early roll that kept them atop the Metropolitan Division -- that name still rolls off the tongue like a mouthful of rusty razor blades, doesn't it? -- for all of October.
They got through it with a 9-4 record, and had a realistic chance to win three of the four games they lost. (The lone exception was a 6-3 defeat at Florida Oct. 11, when rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff -- and most of the guys in front of him -- had an evening to forget.)
The Penguins' strong start can be attributed, in part, to weak early-season competition -- their first seven games were against clubs that sat out the playoffs last season -- but it's their mandate to win games, not schedule them.
A few observations on the Penguins and some of the teams they faced during Month 1 of the 2013-14 season:
* Skilled players almost always will turn the puck over more than those who stick to a low-risk, low-reward style, but if Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin can't cut down on giveaways of which they've been guilty at times, the Penguins might want to arrange internships for both in their Promotions Department.
* Aside from a three-game stretch during which it converted on five of 11 opportunities, the Penguins' power play has not been the force it can be. Should be. Must be. The talent they can dispatch on the No. 1 unit has few, if any, equals, and there's no good reason that shouldn't be reflected in its conversion rate.
* The Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach isn't awarded in November, but if it were, Patrick Roy of Colorado might be a unanimous selection by the broadcasters who vote on it. Great goaltending has been the cornerstone of the Avalanche's stunning start -- J-S Giguere was nothing shy of sensational in a 1-0 victory at Consol Energy Center -- but Roy has done a remarkable job of making believers of his players.
* Sidney Crosby has averaged a bit under a minute per game of ice time while the Penguins have been killing penalties, but has been passive, offensively, in those situations. While it's worth noting that he generally starts his shorthanded shifts by handling a defensive-zone faceoff, which does not lend itself to generating offense, he entered the weekend without a single shorthanded shot. Having Crosby be more of a threat offensively when the Penguins are down a man could be a major deterrent to opposing power plays.
* Dealing with injuries is part of the challenge of competing in the NHL, and the Penguins haven't said much about losing an average of more than four man-games to this point of the season. That doesn't mean they don't deserve praise for their ability to thrive despite missing Letang for the first nine games and having James Neal go down after taking just five shifts in the opener.
* Olli Maatta won't be the NHL's rookie of the year, because two-way defensemen just don't get that much attention. That doesn't mean that, based on his work so far, he won't deserve a place on a lot of ballots. The Penguins had to be looking for any possible reason to justify returning him to his junior team in London, and Maatta never gave them one. The challenge for him now will be to hold up under the NHL grind, going against the biggest, strongest and most skilled players he has faced since taking up the game on a nightly basis.
* There have been some real surprises in the NHL this season. Steve Downie ending up back in Philadelphia, where the Flyers have been anchored at the bottom of the Metropolitan standings and Craig Berbue has taken over as coach, isn't one of them.
* Crosby's run of points in 11 of the Penguins' first 13 games was pretty impressive, but a streak of 82 games-played will be a lot more important to the ultimate success of his team.
* Landing a job on Malkin's right side has proven to be slightly more hazardous than making a living on a bomb-disposal unit. Neal, Beau Bennett and Chuck Kobasew played there during the first dozen games. All three ended up with major lost-time injuries.
* Canada's Olympic talent pool, especially up front, is deep enough that the guys picking the team almost couldn't make a poor selection, which is why Chris Kunitz probably is no better than an even-money bet to be part of the squad. But given the way he meshes with Crosby, every other country that will be sending a team to Sochi will be happy if Kunitz has to watch the tournament on TV.
The week ahead
Wednesday:at New York Rangers ... Renovations to Madison Square Garden forced the Rangers to play their first nine games on the road. Their 3-6 record during that stretch put them in a hole that won't be easy to escape.
Saturday: at St. Louis ... His profile might not be particularly high in the East, but Blues center Alexander Steen has staked out a place among the league's most prolific goal-scorers and point-producers this season.
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