On the Penguins: An NHL miracle first half



The Penguins have come up with some pretty attractive and popular alternate jerseys in recent years.

The one they unveiled for the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo was a major hit with their fan base, and the one they'll wear for an outdoors game at Solder Field in Chicago March 1 seems to have been well-received, too.

And perhaps the organization will decide to come up with another to commemorate the first half of the 2013-14 season.

Maybe something with a red cross replacing the golden triangle as the background on the crest. Or possibly with the penguin depicted there holding a pair of crutches instead of a hockey stick.

The Penguins, you see, already have absorbed a season's worth of injuries, even though they won't close out the first half of 2013-14 until they visit Columbus this evening.

They have averaged more than five man-games lost through their first 40 games, and that number doesn't figure to shrink significantly anytime soon.

Nonetheless, the Penguins have piled up points with stunning regularity, and are poised to all but lap the rest of the Metropolitan Division.

In a normal season, their ability to build such a commanding lead in the division despite losing so many key players for so many games might contend for recognition as the most remarkable story in the league.

That won't happen this time, however, because no player or team will top Minnesota goalie Josh Harding, who is battling multiple sclerosis while making a spirited run at the Vezina Trophy.

Sure, it hasn't hurt the Penguins that the competition inside the Metropolitan has made the late, unlamented Southeast Division look like the SEC West on a good weekend, but that detracts little from what the Penguins have achieved so far.

A few observations from the first half of their season:

* One of the most striking things about the 200-plus man-games the Penguins have lost to injury might be that Sidney Crosby hasn't accounted for any of them, having dressed for all 40 games to date. Then again, Crosby had done that a few of years ago and was putting together an absolutely sensational season, only to have Washington's David Steckel fell him with a blow to the head that ended his season and took a significant chunk out of the next one.

* Kris Letang has the skills set to be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, but hasn't looked the part during most of the games in which he has appeared. His decision-making frequently has been poor, and his execution often hasn't been much better. He has looked unfocused at times, and perhaps the injuries that forced him to miss the start of the season and another stretch of games in December might be behind that. Whatever the reason, the Penguins will benefit greatly if Letang can play close to his potential, and do it on a consistent basis, once he rejoins the lineup.

* Commendable as the work young defensemen like Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson did when called upon because of injuries was, the play of rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff probably is the most pleasant surprise to date. Zatkoff, who had no experience at this level, has established himself as a completely capable NHL goaltender, and squelched the need for management to seek a replacement for Tomas Vokoun if the blood clots that have idled him since training camp force him to retire.

* Conventional wisdom in the NHL holds that a club's special teams are doing OK if the combined success rates of its power play and penalty-killing totals 100 or more. The Penguins' was 118.1 coming out of the holiday break.

* Reliable, two-way defensemen don't tend to win awards, so Olli Maatta probably won't end up near the top of many people's Calder Trophy ballots at the end of the regular season. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be there, however. Maatta plays with poise and hockey sense beyond his 19 years, and he's only going to get better.

The week ahead:

Today: at Columbus ... Despite being geographically obvious, this rivalry likely won't get real traction until the Blue Jackets are able to beat the Penguins on a fairly regular basis.

Tuesday: at New Jersey ... It doesn't matter that the Penguins are comfortably ahead of the Devils in the Metropolitan. Trying to sneak a point or two out of the Prudential Center is always tough -- and frequently futile -- for them.

Friday: New York Rangers ... New York presumably will be thrilled to get started on a new year, because the 2013 portion of this season's schedule hasn't been very kind to them. They split two previous games with the Penguins, both at Madison Square Garden.


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