How are the Penguins playing .700 hockey thus far minus most of their star players?
Share with others:
It's not so much that the Penguins are tied for first place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Not when the team they are even with, Washington, has played three fewer games, as have the clubs clustered directly below those two.
No, the most striking thing about the Penguins' 6-2-2 start is they have done so well under such trying circumstances.
Ten games crammed into 17 days, and spread over four time zones. Not a single shift from Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin dressing for just three games, and Brooks Orpik for two.
Considering all of that, playing .700 hockey, which is a 115-point pace, is a pretty fair accomplishment. And it suggests the Penguins could play near -- or above -- that level if/when things settle down a bit.
A look back at some of the highs and lows from their first 10 games of 2011-12:
Remember long, long ago -- way back in early October -- when some people had grave concerns about whether James Neal could score the way the Penguins were expecting him to? Don't hear much of that talk anymore, now that he has gotten eight in the first 10 games.
Neal has scored 23 of his 81 career goals in the month of October, so it's a little risky to expect him to maintain anything close to this pace over the balance of the season. Still, his production sure has come in handy at a time when injuries have reduced the team's top offensive threats to spectators for most of the season.
Runners-up: Neal's early-season outburst barely was enough to sneak him past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whose excellence to date is the polar opposite of his performance at this time a year ago. He has come up with just about every key stop the Penguins have -- and he needed every one to edge out Kris Letang.
Letang's ill-considered hit from behind on Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov Oct. 17 was a major mistake, but it's one of the few things he has done wrong in the past two-plus weeks. His statistics -- eight points, 13 hits and eight blocked shots -- illustrate just how effective he has been at both ends of the rink.
Zbynek Michalek, whose immediate future is uncertain because of a hand injury he received blocking a shot Saturday, is a popular choice as the head of the local Occupy Doghouse movement. The Penguins were hoping the Michalek-Paul Martin defense pairing would elevate its game now that those two are in their second season here, but Michalek -- while not necessarily as bad as some critics might suggest -- has not played at the level anticipated. Not with any sort of regularity, anyway. And his pratfall on the first shift in Winnipeg a week ago was the low point of this season so far.
Runner-up: Center Mark Letestu has an excellent record on faceoffs, going 61-45, but otherwise has had fewer good moments than even Michalek so far. He was a healthy scratch Saturday and unless he gets his game back in synch, could be out of a job in the NHL if the Penguins ever have more than 23 healthy bodies available.
Keep this up, and the Penguins' penalty-killers might end up as the most celebrated group since U2.
They have killed 32 of 33 shorthanded situations, allowing only an overtime goal during a 3-on-4 against Washington. That's a success rate of 97 percent, which is about three notches above ridiculous.
That they've scored two more goals than they've allowed only compounds how crazy-good they have been.
The Penguins won't be able to keep up this pace indefinitely, but betting against them to repeat as the top-rated penalty-killing unit in the league probably is no way to get wealthy.
It's not easy to turn up a deserving one on a club that has earned 14 of a possible 20 points, so how about the team's medical staff? Shouldn't they have developed a vaccine that prevents concussions and sore knees by now?
Noteworthy as Joe Vitale cementing his place as an NHL-caliber talent has been, did anyone really think Matt Cooke would have far more points (7) than penalty minutes (2) this deep into the season? No one should pronounce his attempt to purge the cheap shots from his game an unqualified success just yet, let alone pencil him in on a Masterton Trophy ballot, but the early results surely are encouraging. This might be the best he's played since joining the Penguins.
Runner-up: Pascal Dupuis seems doomed to be forever overlooked -- except by the people for and with whom he plays. While he has always been counted on for steady, responsible work at both ends, he has exceeded all reasonable expectations so far.
At age 37, Steve Sullivan can't be expected to score goals as often as he did earlier in his career, but it is hard to believe that he still doesn't have one. It certainly isn't because he has lacked chances, or hasn't been put in positions to score. He has done so many other things well, though, that it's unlikely the coaching staff is fretting over his early-season drought.
If the Penguins can be so remarkably successful without their two most talented players -- they've gone 23-13-5 in the past 41 games Crosby and Malkin have missed -- what can they achieve when both are back in uniform?
This team has had its best possible lineup intact for all of two periods since the 2010 playoffs. (That would be the first 40 minutes of the Jan. 1 game against Washington, when Jordan Staal made his 2010-11 debut and Crosby took a wicked shot to the head from then-Capitals center David Steckel as the second intermission approached.) Some of that can be attributed to bad luck, like Tyler Myers of Buffalo falling on Malkin's knee, but the Penguins' success is a by-product of an aggressive style that emphasizes things like playing physically and blocking shots.
That's a winning formula, obviously, and one the players have embraced, but there are risks involved in playing that way.
Staying reasonably healthy makes a long playoff run a lot more likely, but sometimes that comes down to luck.
Considering what the Penguins have gone through for the past year or so, they're probably due for some of the good kind.
First Published October 24, 2011 12:00 am