One Month Review
There are a few things that fans want to see from their hockey team. That is winning and a winning effort.
In Pittsburgh, we have been very fortunate to see both of that lately. I’m not going to discuss the lack of Crosby or Malkin, because by now we know this team can win without them, but they have won this season without a few others.
So far Kris Letang served a two game suspension, Brooks Orpik missed the first eight games after recovering from hernia surgery, and Tyler Kennedy sustained a concussion and has missed quite a few games thus far. These were crucial contributors at the end of last season that have already missed time, but despite this the Penguins are still playing strong hockey.
Zbenyck Michalek is also out for about a month with a broken hand, so things are not really panning out on health. Jordan Staal is still listed as day to day, but you can expect him back in the lineup for the West Coast trip this week.
We are now one month into the season and with that comes a lot of story lines and you can actually evaluate your team. For Pittsburgh, that is somewhat tough considering their “team” hasn’t played all together, but at the same time, it is pretty easy. 13 games in 26 days; that is what this team has done so far.
Playing every other night is tough, but doing that injured, is even tougher. The Penguins have amassed a record of 8-3-2 and look like one of the top teams in the league. Here is a short look on the bright spots.
Truly Impressive – Right now there is only a few players hotter than James Neal. Neal is second in the league with 9 goals and of those nine; he only has one multi-goal game. His consistent and tenacious back checking has led to multiple turnovers and two of which led directly to goals. His physical presence is something to be feared as well. The big power forward is constantly hitting people and can be seen giving 100% in every section of the ice. Neal might not be scoring pretty goals, but a goal is a goal. His quick release and overall strength of his shot makes any puck put on net a scoring opportunity.
Quietly dominating – Jordan Staal has shown nothing but heart this season. In 13 games Staal has accumulated 9 points, consisting of 6 goals and 3 assists. The big forward has shown a much stronger puck possession game this season, as well as a more intimidating physical presence. He continues to be one of the toughest players to play against and is possibly the best penalty killing forward in the league. Staal is part of the league’s best PK unit and is typically paired against the opposition’s top lines. This season is no different and Staal has been a crucial part to the Penguins early season success.
Stats don’t mean a damn thing – Right now it is hard for me to pick a goaltender with more upside than Marc-Andre Fleury. There is no goaltender more exciting or more frustrating in this league. Right now his stats are not league leading, but a 1.86 goals against per game and a .934 save percentage is still pretty darn good. He could have two straight shutouts as well, but in the last two minutes of the Montreal game a puck from the point was tipped and ruined his chances. In a game against the Devils a shorthanded goal was scored by Elias, who should have been in the box for a high stick. Fleury might not ever win the Vezina trophy, but last season’s team MVP is starting out right where he left off.
Fourth Line and Famous – How many fans know of Joe Vitale? How many Penguin fans knew of Joe Vitale before this season? Hell, I even said in one of my early articles that he was a “long shot” to make the club, but Joe Vitale has been the workhorse early on. This fourth liner has just 3 points and is a plus one, but his instant chemistry with Craig Adams and Aaron Asham has made everyone in the Steel City forget this Max character we used to have.
Defense Wins Championships – This old adage is used for Football, but we know that it can apply to hockey. For Pittsburgh, they sure look good. Orpik wasn’t healthy to start, but since then has been brutal. He is just as physical and just as strong on the puck as ever. Martin and Michalek have proved that they don’t just stop the puck; they move it with the best of them. This pairing is a mix of speed, passing, blocking, and shut down. They are not big, they are not overly physical, but what they have done is allowing MAF to play some of the best hockey of his career. Finally, the three alternators in Lovejoy, Engelland, and Niskanen have been anything but a liability. Niskanen’s offensive production has been pretty good, but his stick work in the defensive zone has been shockingly good. Lovejoy and Engelland have been putting pucks on net and silently stopping opposing offenses.
Special Teams – What else is new? Last season’s top PK unit is back at it again. They are currently second to Chicago, but tied for first in shorthanded goals. There is no reason to think they will not be top five once again when this season is over. The Power Play has been better this season, but still not tops. Clicking right now at about 21%, good enough for ninth in the league, the Pens could only hope the return of Crosby boosts them to top 5.
This team has been pretty good so far this season. They are not the best, but they are pretty close to the top. With Cup expectations, the Penguins are looking for health. They need Crosby back 100% and nothing short of that. They need Malkin to continue his strong play and Jordan Staal to be Jordan Staal.
In short, they need to play the way they know how and let this season take its course. You will never win them all, but the Pens look pretty good so far. Thanks for the read and expect more updates as the schedule slows down and my schedule does the same.