PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 27: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his goal with teammates against the New York Islanders during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Dan Bylsma won the Jack Adams award last year as coach of the year, mainly for the value of how he handled the massive injuries to the 2010-11 Pittsburgh Penguins and how he found a way to keep the team afloat, until their unceremonious first round exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The problem with that Penguins team was they just couldn't generate enough offense. Defensively, the total team concept played better than ever- the penalty kill unit finished first in the league and Marc-Andre Fleury played without peer from November to April, keeping the Pens in every single game.
But last season James Neal, still shaken from a surprising mid-season trade, could not find his goal scoring touch in a new system with new teammates. Alex Kovalev didn't have the legs to keep up with what he once did and was a dud. Jordan Staal missed the first half the season and though he played well, wasn't in his top form. Evgeni Malkin was lost for the season.
Aside from the departed Kovalev, those players have all rebounded in a major way. Neal is scoring goals seemingly at will and looking like a dominant power forward on every shift. Staal is also asserting himself more physically than in the past and has shown an increased scoring touch early in the season, disallowed goals and all. Malkin is still working back into form coming off his major surgery, but it's very apparent he's still got the same hands, vision and drive that made him, for a short time, the game's best and most dominant player.
Add those three weapons to a decent cast of guys like Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and the reformed Matt Cooke and suddenly this Pittsburgh team plays deeper than it was last season.
And even though the defense has been injury ravaged, with Zbynek Michalek going down just as soon as Brooks Orpik was able to return to the lineup, others have stepped up. Kris Letang and Paul Martin have shouldered huge burdens of ice-time with success and apparent ease. Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland have been asked to play a little more than they otherwise would have, and for the most part they've played well. In net Fleury and Brent Johnson have been absolutely phenomenal, turning in terrific effort after terrific effort night after night.
All that said, we still haven't even touched on Sidney Crosby, who's return seems like it could be soon. And the schedule will be a built in help. The Pens have played a league high 12 games to this point in the year, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Starting today, Pittsburgh only plays four games in the next 14 days, including almost unheard of breaks of four and five days in this stretch.
Sid won't play tomorrow, and it seems unlikely he'd play the next two games both in California, so the next game would be a home games versus the Dallas Stars on Friday November 11th. Two weeks from today. Speculating on Crosby's status has proven to be a futile effort, but if all has gone as well as it has seemed lately, that date seems like a perfect time for a return.
Bylsma's system has carried the Pens to an 8-2-2 early record and with even more time to get Crosby and Malkin back towards full form the Penguins could be hitting their full potential sooner than later. Given how great they've been in other aspects defensively, getting the pure skill and firepower ought to make Pittsburgh that much more dangerous of a team as we continue towards the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.