It's exhilarating to have hockey back; this cannot be said enough, especially since the Pittsburgh Penguins are heading back to the Burgh after starting their season with a very satisfying West Coast trip. The Pens are heading in the right direction by gaining five out of a possible six points on a road trip that consisted of three games in four days.
For those of you who are a little less enthused about the road trip, keep this in mind: last season, the Pens had six points in the first six games last year. This season, winning about that many points took half the time. This might not seem like a big deal now, but every point is going to count in the near future and the Atlantic Division could end up in a tight race where one point delivers home ice advantage.
It's clearly too early to be thinking about the playoffs in any depth, but the Pens have some interesting plots developing that deserve a closer look.
Percentages of power plays and penalty kills hardly mean much so early in the season, but can we sit back and marvel at the fact that the Pens are executing their power play at 31%? Before the Edmonton Oilers' game, it was operating at 50%.
Specifically against Vancouver and Calgary, it felt as if Dan Bylsma performed a mass hypnosis on the power play units. We saw a good power play during preseason, but to see it successful in the season is simply a sigh of a relief.
Now with that said, despite Kris Letang's goal coming on the power play, the man advantage did let down during the Oilers game. With a total of eight opportunities, Pens fans undoubtedly saw flashes of last year's power play. As the game was coming down to the wire, the power play could have ended lives, but they couldn't. The Oilers fought impressively to please the crowd on opening night and their desperate penalty kills were truly a huge story of the game.
Other than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' first-ever NHL goal, that is. A sincere stick tap to him, and we Pens fans have had to see more than our fair share of rookies scoring their first NHL goals against our team.
All in all, things are looking up for the power play that finally received the steroid shot it so desperately needed.
And then there's the penalty kill, solid as ever, not allowing a single goal thus far on 11 shorthanded opportunities, two of them coming in the form of a five-on-three. There isn't much to say about the Pens penalty kill that hasn't been said, but on behalf of the rest of Pens fans, it was amazing seeing Matt Cooke doing what he does best (no, not throw elbows).
Stepping It Up
With this new and actually efficient power play taking form, it only makes sense that some players have had some "transformations" of their own.
Can we talk about James Neal?
Neal took the heat last season for his disappointing one goal and six points in 20-regular season games. Despite his shortcomings on the stats sheet, he was regularly the most hard-working player on the ice, but at the end of the day, hard work is just that unless it can turn into results.
Suffice to say that a summer with Gary Roberts turned Neal into the player we knew was somewhere in him. He started this season quickly by netting the first goal of the season for the Pens and already has a third of the points he had last season in a Pens uniform. The line of Evgeni Malkin, Neal and Steve Sullivan was easily the most dangerous and exciting line in the first two games. Those three have found great chemistry and we should expect a lot out of this line. Malkin especially has been a horse who found his legs quickly. The proof is in his creative play.
Also up there in the ridiculously unreal column is Letang, the team's current points leader.
Letang has been all over the ice showing off his slick skating, buttery moves and an overall confidence that was present only the first half of last season. Not to mention Roberto Luongo's head is still spinning from Letang's dekes in the shootout.
And then you have Cooke who has quickly hopped on the rebound train with his team-leading two goals. He's done his job and then some which leads us to think that Cooke has truly taken this change of play seriously. He gets my vote for biggest surprise so far.
Lastly, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson. One of the best 1-2 goalie punches in the NHL. Sure, both have their flaws when they're between the pipes, but when the game is on the line, they stand tall. These two will do great things for the Pens and I have full faith that they will step up when the team needs them.
Other interesting statistical tidbits:
- Joe Vitale has won 25 of 42 faceoffs, giving him a 59.5 FO%. Max who?
- Kris Letang has yet to register a missed shot. Big difference from last year already. He's also averaging around 27 minutes per game. Absolutely ridiculous (and good for sixth in the NHL).
- Against Edmonton, only two players (Vitale and Steve MacIntyre) didn't register shots. Against Calgary, it was Deryk Engelland and Arron Asham who didn't register shots. Great activation by the defense and team overall; the Vancouver game is proof that every shot is a good shot.
- Speaking of Mac, he only registered 1:27 of ice time and one hit. Is he worth the roster spot?
- Malkin is leading the team with eight...penalty minutes? Keep in mind this is in two games. Players are getting to him so keeping cool will be key for Malkin this year.
I've already mentioned a few negatives, but I can't ignore the Pens' play in the third period. Three times they've taken a lead and three times the opposition has been able to stage a comeback. This isn't a huge problem since only once did this cost the Pens a game (while gaining a point), but starting strong and ending weak isn't where the team wants to go. This is a team that has "been there before" and knows how to close off games. It's time to see that more often.
It'll also be interesting to see how the Pens handle comebacks of their own. I addressed this problem of theirs in my last post.
Individually, I've been disappointed with Mark Letestu so far. Bylsma demoted Letestu to the fourth line while bumping Vitale up. Last season, Letestu had a tremendous start as a rookie and was being heralded as a Calder nominee however he cooled off as the season progressed. The Sophomore Slump is a widely recognized phenomenon in sports, but let's just hope Letestu's flat play is a result of offseason rust and nothing more.
So far so good for the Pens and get this: Crosby, Brooks Orpik and Dustin Jeffrey haven't even returned yet. Malkin *should* be back for the home opener and we saw what a difference was made to the lineup with his presence.
Gear up, Pens fans. We're just getting warmed up.