A Tale of 1/3 of a Season
A third of the Penguins' season is in the books. The Pens have played 16 games and sit atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with a 11-5-0 record and 22 points. New Jersey have the same number of points, but Pittsburgh have an extra regulation/overtime win, giving them the tie-breaker at this early stage.
Let's look at some positives and negatives before dishing out some just-for-fun 16-Game Awards at the end.
Things I Like So Far
Pittsburgh are the best road team in the league right now, going 8-2 in 10 road contests so far. They have been able to come out and set the tone early, quietening the hostile crowd by scoring the first goal in every road game to date, netting at least one first period tally in each. Their only road losses have come in New Jersey and in Sidney Crosby's Winnipeg debut.
A stinker of a second period cost two points in Winnipeg, despite Crosby's pair of first period goals. The Penguins' indiscipline cost two points in the Prudential Center - they were assessed 12 minor penalties (including some dreadful calls by the officials) - despite the penalty killers holding New Jersey to just 2-for-10 on the power play. And let's face it, the Devils' neutral zone trap has been giving the Pens (and the rest of the league for that matter!) palpitations for years. And let's not forget the evergreen Marty Brodeur - check out this robbery of Chris Kunitz if you missed it.
There are a number of other traveling highlights. Special teams play has been solid too. The power play has 11 road goals at a 28.4% clip; the penalty kill has conceded goals in only 5 of the 10 games. Of James Neal's 11 goals, 7 have come on his travels. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been lights-out on the road, winning 5 of 6 starts and posting a .939 save percentage and 1.82 goals against.
With the Pens having a heavy dose of road games early on, and with only a .500 record at Consol Energy Center so far, their road performance has been the key to leading the Conference.
As well as scoring first in every road game, the Pens have taken the lead in 13 of their 16 games, winning 10 of those contests. This shows the importance of getting that first marker, but perhaps more important than merely scoring first is scoring early. Twelve of those goals have been scored in the first period (Brandon Sutter had the temerity to wait until 2:27 of the 2nd in the 5-1 win over New Jersey on February 2nd!), either taking the opposing crowd out of the game early or firing up the usually quiet Consol crowd.
Quick strike first period dominance has typified Pittsburgh's start to the season. They have 18 first period goals, against only 6 conceded. They have scored inside the first five minutes of 9 games, including 5 goals scored before the two-minute mark. This is a team built to score, so the quicker they can light the lamp, the better. If they can maintain this trend, opposing teams will be forced out of the trapping schemes that have flummoxed both the Penguins players and the coaching staff over the last few seasons.
I think everyone has been impressed - and a little surprised - with Paul Martin's improved play. He leads the team with 25:37 of ice time per game and trails only Kris Letang for points among Pens' d-men. Martin has 2G-7A to this point, playing mostly alongside Brooks Orpik as a shut-down pair, and has looked masterful in quarterbacking the top power play unit since taking over for an injured Letang. Sure, you'd love to see him with a positive +/-, but hey, that's a stat that doesn't tell you anything of note.
So far, the Pens have used nine different defenseman because of injury or roster wrangling. Martin, Letang, Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Dylan Reese and the now-in-Anaheim Ben Lovejoy have all appeared on the blueline. Highly touted defensive prospect Joe Morrow was also called up before the February 10th Devils game, but was sent back to Wilkes-Barre the following day.
Each player has contributed something meaningful, either through scoring (Letang, Martin), physicality (Orpik, Engelland), solid two-way play (Despres, Niskanen) or simply stepping in admirably when better players have gone down injured (Bortuzzo, Reese). The Penguins currently rank a respectable 10th in goals against per game. What looked like a weakness down the stretch last season has been a strength this year.
Things I'd Like To See Now
Geno: Score A Goal!
This might seem a little harsh on a reigning Hart Trophy winner who has 18 points in 16 games, but Evgeni Malkin only has 3 of the Penguins 52 goals. He needs more!
I'd like to see Malkin net a couple pretty soon for a few reasons. First, Geno is no small part of James Neal's hot start to the season, but at some point, defenders are going to start keying more on Neal (assuming it's possible to stop his super-quick release!). If Neal's goals dry up for any length of time, Geno's going to have to pick up the slack. The fact that he only has 50 shots so far, only the 23rd highest total in the league, is a little strange.
Second, great centers like...oh I don't know...Sidney Crosby...make the players around them better. Clearly, Malkin has done a great job getting Neal the puck, but guess how many goals Geno's left wingers have so far this year when playing on his line? Precisely zero. None. Alright, none of Eric Tangradi - now departed to Winnipeg for a 7th round pick - Tyler Kennedy, Zach Boychuk, Tanner Glass or Matt Cooke are exactly Zach Parise, but you could be forgiven for expecting a couple of goals from that group. In fact, only Cooke has a point playing with Malkin - a solitary assist. Part of the blame for the position's lack of production has to fall on Geno. Being more of a goal threat himself - or even just shooting the puck more - would surely create opportunities for linemates to bang home rebounds.
And the third reason is best covered below...
Man In The Box
Hopefully, this is a problem that will right itself soon, but too many undisciplined penalties are going to cost the Penguins games sooner or later. One would hope that all the silly, bonehead penalties were got out of the system in the 12 minor debacle against the Devils.
Early in the season, and in some games since, it's been evident that frustration with in-game events or performance has led to downright stupid penalties. Malkin has been a prime culprit, averaging close to two PIMs a game, with the vast majority being as a result of frustration, either with the opposition, the officials or himself. The sooner he starts scoring goals, the fewer penalties he'll take.
Even in the Buffalo game on Sunday, Crosby took an unnecessary cross checking penalty, followed by Tanner Glass being pinged for delay of game after using his hand to win a face off. Buffalo tied the game on the ensuing 5-on-3. Bad penalties usually come back to bite you. Chris Kunitz was fortunate Buffalo didn't take advantage of his dumb retaliatory slash late in the 3rd.
Only ten teams have been shorthanded more often but, as I saw someone on Twitter say the other day, the penalty kill might be good, but they shouldn't have to keep proving it!
Basically, there's only so long Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz and Dupuis can carry the rest of the forwards. Brandon Sutter has 6 points, Matt Cooke five. The group consisting of Kennedy, Boychuk, Glass, Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and 2010 first round pick Beau Bennett has combined for 3 goals and 7 points in 76 man games.
Some of these guys escape criticism because of their defense-first role, but Ray Shero's patience can only surely last so long for players like Kennedy. See Lovejoy to Anaheim and Tangradi (1 goal in 45 games) to Winnipeg for reference. And it would be nice to see Tanner Glass add to the grit and hits with some scoring soon.
1/3 Season Awards
Winner: Chris Kunitz
There are a number of worthy candidates for this, with Neal's 11 goals and Sid's 24 points being the obvious numbers to look at. Martin's play has already been discussed. Joe Vitale continues to hit the ice like a man possessed game in, game out and has been dominant in the face-off circles. And Pascal Dupuis? Well Duper will always be a Duperstar. He just plays the game the right way. And playing alongside Sidney Crosby will always help!
But Kunitz is simply playing at a level above his previous history. Never has he come close to averaging a point per game over a completed season. And yet here he is, tied for second on the team with 7 goals, third in assists with 12 and second in points with 19. He has two game winning goals, three power play goals and is +11.
Kunitz plays a physical, effective game. He finishes checks hard, creates havoc on the forecheck and is a pest in front of the net. He's the sort of player that creates space for others, but also has an eye for goal himself.
Oh yeah, and he also became the first Penguins player since that quite good guy who wore #68 - you know the one, Jagr or something, look it up - to have a four-goal game. Not bad.
Runners Up: James Neal, Joe Vitale, Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis
The rest of the awards are a bit silly, given that it's pretty obvious who the Pens' best goaltender, defenseman etc are, but in brief:
Art Ross: Crosby, 24 Points
'Rocket' Richard: Neal, 11 Goals
Norris: Letang. Runner Up: Martin
Vezina: Fleury. Runner Up: Tomas Vokoun
Selke: Dupuis. Runners Up: Brandon Sutter, Vitale, Craig Adams
Calder: Despres. Runner Up: Bortuzzo
So, there you have it. One man's view of 16 games. Make of it what you will and Let's Go Pens!
Comments are welcomed and appreciated!