The Pittsburgh Penguins have played 21 games this season with the 22nd coming tonight in Florida against the Panthers. With one quarter of the season already in the books, the Pens (11-8-2) are in second place in the Atlantic Division, four points behind the Philadelphia Flyers.
In their last five games, the Penguins have posted a 4-0-1 record and Marc-Andre Fleury appears to have broken out of the slump he was mired in to start the season.
Let’s take a deeper look at the first quarter of the season and start handing out some grades.
It’s hard to argue against the Pens having one of the top offenses in the league with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the roster.
The Pens have scored 64 goals this season, which is tied for sixth most in the league. However, given that not every team has played 21 games, it’s only fair to take into consideration the average goals scored per game. In that regard, the Pens are tied for seventh with 3.05 goals per game.
However, it’s not just Sid and Geno doing all the work. Seven different Penguins already have at least 10 points on the season, while two others have nine.
Not to mention, the defense has been figuring into just about every goal the Penguins score. Pens blueliners have tallied an impressive 51 points combined this season.
Kris Letang is leading the way with 18 points (three goals, 15 assists), while Alex Goligoski has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and newly acquired Paul Martin has 10 points (one goal, nine assists).
Chris Kunitz has the most points of any Pens forward not named Crosby or Malkin with 12 (seven goals, five assists).
On any given night, this team can explode and bury multiple goals in mere seconds. What remains to be seen is if the defense will continue to produce this much. If they don’t, guys like Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy and Mark Letestu are going to need to pick up the slack.
Pittsburgh is 15th in the league in goals allowed after digging 57 pucks out of their own cage this season. Again, it’s not a fair estimate. Those 57 goals against translate into a 2.71 goals against average, which is 11th best in the NHL.
The Boston Bruins lead the way in this category, having allowed 33 goals in 18 games for an average of 1.83 per game.
Fleury would probably like to forget the first part of the season. There are some observers out there who believe every puck that ends up in the net is somehow the goaltender’s fault. That’s an argument for another day and I can promise it will be addressed when the time is right. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had to explain why a goal wasn’t a goaltender’s fault this season, I’d be writing this from my beach-front mansion in Fiji.
For the time-being, let’s just say that overall, the Pens’ team effort on defense was shaky for most of the first quarter of the season.
Part of the sloppy defensive play may be due to the number of injuries the Pens had to deal with early on. Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski have all either missed time or have been dinged up. Early on this season ,we were lucky to see the same six guys in the lineup from night to night.
I’m not taking into consideration the offensive upside of the Pens’ defensemen into this grade. This is solely based on the defensive aspect of the game and the golden scoring chances allowed in most games this season. The Pens allow the fewest shots against per game (27.1), but one or two defensive breakdowns can cost you a game.
For as bad as Fleury’s start to the season was, Brent Johnson’s was off-the-charts incredible.
Johnson (6-2-1, 2.11 GA, .927 save percentage) started the season 5-0-1 and was rock solid in every game. The lone blemish to start the season was a 1-0 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 23.
In his last three starts, Johnson is 1-2 and has allowed 12 goals.
However, Fleury(5-6-1, 2.95 GAA, .883 save percentage) has stepped up his game and is looking like the goaltender than backstopped the Pens to the 2009 Stanley Cup title. His positioning has been much better and his rebound control is much improved. He’s seeing pucks better and is coming up with key saves at key times in the game.
The good sign is that while one goaltender has struggled, the other has stepped in and helped to win games.
Johnson did an admirable job early on this season and has shown why he’s a valuable veteran backup goaltender in the NHL. However, it’s no secret that this is Fleury’s team and he will need to continue to shine if the Pens have hopes of winning a fourth Stanley Cup this season.
Does it even need to be said? Ok, here it goes.
The power play has been the Pens’ Achilles heel all year long. The one aspect of the game where you can throw out guys like Malkin, Crosby, Letang, Goligoski, Kunitz, etc. should strike fear into the opponents.
However, for obvious reasons, other teams are shutting down the Pens’ power play with regularity.
Pittsburgh is 25th in the league (13.5 percent) with the man-advantage. Only the Flyers have more power play chances (97) than the Pens (96), but Pittsburgh only has 13 power play goals.
One of the alarming issues is the tendency for everyone to defer to Crosby and Malkin. Not that it isn’t understandable, but at some point, someone needs to start blasting away from all angles.
You can’t score if you don’t get pucks to the net and the Pens’ power play has proven that old adage enough this season. The power play is predictable, despite the addition of a guy like Goligoski roaming around the zone all the time.
In theory, it’s a great strategy. Movement keeps the penalty killers and the opposing goaltender guessing. If everyone starts hammering shots on net, as a penalty killer how do you guard against it? The time to start faking shots is once you have the opposition believing that any Pens player could unleash a twine-seeking missile at any time.
One other observation: the Pens are looking for the “Ryan Whitney Play” far too often on the power play. Just keep it simple. Put the puck on net and crash for the rebound.
With the amount of offensive talent the Pens have, this power play has no business being near the bottom of the league.
I must say, I have been blown away by how great the penalty kill has been and Jordan Staal hasn’t appeared in a single game yet this season.
Craig Adams may not score a lot of goals, but is there another guy on this team that you would want out there killing penalties in Staal’s absence?
Matt Cooke and Talbot continue to be solid penalty killers and the newly acquired shot blocking extraordinaire Michalek is as advertised.
The Pens are fourth in the league killing penalties at an 88.5 percent rate. Last year, Pittsburgh finished 9th in the league (84.1 percent).
One aspect of the Pens’ game that needs improvement is the number of penalties taken. Despite being shorthanded 87 times (fourth most in the league), the Pens have only allowed 10 goals.
As stated before, this penalty killing effort hasn’t had the services of Staal, who is one of the best in the league, which gives them the easy A here.
Overall, the first 21 games could have gone better. However, the team has played much better of late and guys like Crosby, Malkin and Fleury are heating up. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come and we can chalk up the slow start to the time needed for the new additions to learn the system.
Be sure to check back often as I’ll be live-blogging select games throughout the season. You can also follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CaseySheaPens