Penguins need power play to improve
Jordan Staal and the Penguins raise their sticks in tribute to the fans at Heinz Field after Saturday's Winter Classic.
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The Penguins' most-hyped, most-anticipated game of the 2010-11 regular season is history.
The 42 that remain, however, are what will determine how they are positioned to contend for the Stanley Cup this spring.
The first half of their season ends Wednesday, when Tampa Bay comes to Consol Energy Center. The second half starts the next night, with a visit to Montreal.
The Penguins close in on the midpoint of their season with a 25-12-3 record. That is good for first place in the Eastern Conference, and puts them in a cluster of teams competing for the top spot in the overall standings.
The Penguins have gotten there, in large part, because Sidney Crosby is playing the finest hockey of his career. Because their penalty-killing has been exceptional and because defenseman Kris Letang is having a Norris Trophy-caliber season.
And they're there despite a power play that hasn't produced to anything resembling its potential. Despite Evgeni Malkin sputtering for significant stretches. Despite not having its best lineup available until Saturday night, when Jordan Staal made his 2010-11 debut in a 3-1 loss to Washington in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
The significance of that defeat by the Capitals is more symbolic than substantial. Aside from allowing Washington to move closer to the Penguins in the fight for the top spot in the East and dropping the Penguins' all-time record in night games marred by drizzle to 0-1, it really didn't mean much.
It did highlight several of the elements that have caused problems for the Penguins, especially during the early weeks of the season.
They tended to overhandle the puck, a particularly bad idea on a sub-par playing surface. That contributed to a 0-for-4 performance by the power play, which has been less productive than a unit with its skill level should. And goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has rebounded brilliantly from a miserable start, was guilty of a puck-handling gaffe that led to Washington's winning goal.
The Capitals held Crosby without a point for the second consecutive game -- this is the first time all season he has gone more than one without a goal or assist -- but he continues to lead the league with 65 and has scored or set up 51.2 percent of the Penguins' goals.
To put that in perspective, consider that Malkin and Letang, who are tied for second in the team scoring race with 33 points, each has had a hand in 26 percent of the Penguins' goals.
Crosby, who has controlled 55.7 percent of his league-high 958 draws, also is the primary reason the Penguins have become a better-than-average faceoff team, with a success rate of 50.9 percent. He and Mark Letestu (234 wins, 198 losses, 54.2 percent) are the only ones to handle a meaningful total of faceoffs and do better than break even.
Malkin never has been much of a faceoff man, and he has just 52 wins, 92 losses (36.1 percent) this season. He usually is a lethal offensive force, however, and that hasn't been the case through much of the first half.
Still, he piled up five goals in three games after returning from a knee injury last month and if using him on Staal's right side works out, Malkin's statistics could spike in the second half.
Although the Penguins are averaging 3.10 goals per game, that figure is skewed by Crosby's production. Their chances of finishing atop the Atlantic Division, as well as the Eastern Conference, will rise dramatically if they get more offense from Malkin, along with some secondary scoring.
Aside from Crosby and Malkin, Chris Kunitz is the only Penguins player on pace to score 20 goals, while Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Letestu are the only other forwards likely to reach 15.
Perhaps the Penguins' greatest offensive concern, though, is the mediocre output of its power play, which is converting just 16.5 percent of its opportunities, placing it 21st in the league before Sunday night's games. It certainly hasn't been the difference-maker it could be. Not in a positive way, at least.
Conversely, the penalty-killers have been outstanding. They have allowed more than one goal in a game just once and rank second in the league with an 87.1 percent success rate. With Staal back in the mix, that number might nudge higher.
The Penguins are fortunate that they've played so well while short-handed, because they're averaging a league-high 16.8 penalty minutes per game. That speaks to the aggressive style they play, as do the 1,059 hits they have recorded.
Playing down a man so often puts severe pressure on Fleury, but after an awful start, he is 16-3-2 in his past 21 starts.
Goaltending is the pivotal variable in most games -- or seasons, or playoff series -- and if Fleury continues to stop pucks the way he has been (even if it's still an adventure when he handles them), the Penguins have a legitimate chance to be playing five months or so after Saturday night's swim meet at Heinz Field washed into hockey history.
First Published January 3, 2011 12:00 am