Reporting Colin Dunlap
PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) — Relax, Penguins fans.
The sky isn’t falling.
You just make it seem that way sometimes.
To listen to the talk show callers the past week, take a quick gander at a Twitter timeline or eavesdrop on a conversation around this city, one would never be able to venture a guess the NHL entry from this fair city of steel is in — pause for added impact — first place right now.
Yes, the Penguins — that group of hockey players seemingly everyone wants to be so highly critical of right now — are atop the Atlantic Division with 28 points through 22 games as the Tampa Bay Lightning head to CONSOL Energy Center on Monday night.
Certainly there is room to improve, much room to improve.
But professional sports is a results business and, to that end, the Penguins’ results through almost the halfway mark of the season have pushed them to the uppermost point in the Atlantic and among the top handful of teams in the Eastern Conference.
That’s what we should be concentrating on here; that should be the focus for now.
Instead, however, there appears to be an overriding, overarching concentration on all that hasn’t happened or, more precise, some of the deficiencies.
To wit: Dan Bylsma, a man with a 14-8 record this season who has a 179-89 mark (.668 winning percentage) since he took over the club in the 2008-09 season, has been taken to task by certain factions of the fan base. There’s a notion he’s not implemented a system with enough slant toward defense.
There’s also been heavy criticism as of late aimed at Bylsma’s template goaltender arrangement, wherein Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have dates — predetermined up to two weeks out — when they will play. This eliminates the “hot hand” aspect a goalie could build up but Bylsma, to his credit, has remained married to his system.
Perhaps Bylsma’s predetermined goaltender regimen backfired to a degree in Montreal on Saturday, when Vokoun surprisingly got a start and allowed six goals.
Bottom line, however, the Penguins won, 7-6. Again, it is a results business.
Does Vokoun need to get exponentially better after having two shaky outings in recent vintage where he allowed six goals? Of course.
But looking at it that way would be a disservice to the totality of Vokoun’s work — he pitched the lone shutout on the season for the Penguins and made several key saves against Montreal, through all the defensive lapses in front of him, to allow the Penguins to win the firewagon game.
Vokoun has stepped in and started eight games this season, giving Fleury a breather through this comet of a 48-game schedule after many felt the Penguins’ early playoff exit last season was due in part to Fleury’s fatigue after playing the heavy balance of the regular season.
Some might not like Bylsma’s predetermined rotation, but it’s starkly obvious he wants it in place, is sticking to it and, to this point in the season, has been successful.
The glass-half-empty crowd has also been quick to point out, through this weekend, that the Penguins’ defensive paucities have allowed the opposition to score 64 goals through the first 22 games.
Unquestionably, those numbers are accurate and could improve — heck, they should improve — but looking only at that would be to ignore the converse: the Penguins have scored 77 goals through Sunday, which was tops in the National Hockey League.
So, you can look at the former, I will concentrate on the latter.
All this and the Penguins have been far from at full-strength as of late, with forward Evgeni Malkin taking a nasty spill on Feb. 22 against the Florida Panthers.
He has been sidelined since with a concussion, practicing for the first time on Sunday with no definitive timetable set for his return.
In addition, defenseman Paul Martin — who was in the midst of one of the great turnaround seasons in the NHL — suffered a lower-body injury on Thursday in Carolina, hasn’t played since and will not play Monday night against the Lightning.
The logical presumption is the Penguins — again, need I remind you a first-place team — should only improve as the health of both Malkin and Martin advance positively.
It’s one thing to be critical, one thing to be analytical, but yet quite another to lose sight of the biggest picture as you pull apart all the layers of minutia that can bog you down.
Don’t do it here.
For all the shortcomings, room for improvement and enhancement that could happen, don’t overlook the most apparent number here: As almost half the regular-season is played, this team is a first place team.
Now, if there is a third consecutive first-round playoff exit, there will certainly be room to gripe, grieve, grumble and protest as loudly as you see fit.
But, for now at least, relax, Penguins fans.
The sky isn’t falling.
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Writer Colin Dunlap is the featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10p-2a on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can email him at email@example.com.