How Are the Pens Doing? Games 14-23

In the first installment of this series, I noted that I would be able to make comments about Sidney Crosby for the second installment. Sure enough, here we are with a very healthy Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, a luxury Pens fans aren't taking lightly.  A healthy lineup does carry high expectations but the Pens have given no indication that this will be a problem.

Continuing with my in depth analysis of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 10-game intervals, it's time to look at how the Pens have done since my last look. The games I'll be looking at include the November 3rd meeting with the San Jose Sharks through last Friday's showdown with the Ottawa Senators. As always, I am only referencing these last 10 games unless I specifically note otherwise.

So without further ado...

Offense

A week ago, the Pens received a gift-wrapped present in form of an $8.7 million franchise-saver. The addition of Crosby to the lineup immediately means improvement to the offense and the results were apparent. In the 7 games without Crosby, the Pens netted 18 goals; in the three games with Crosby, Pens scored 13.

With a practically healthy lineup, Dan Bylsma now has the luxury of trying different players with different lines. The now famous Twitter line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Steve Sullivan, incredibly dominate with every shift, has seen some time apart in favor of a Malkin, Crosby and Neal line. We even witnessed a Malkin, Crosby and Jordan Staal line that looked ready to end lives in the short amount of time it was together.

Either way, Bylsma now has an unlimited arsenal of fire power ready to be unleashed. Expect to see more line shuffles as Crosby continues to find his stride, but most importantly, expect to see plenty of production.

Breaking it down:

  • Craig Adams: 1 assist. As always, when you don't notice Adams he's doing his job. Always strong defensively. He's playing well.
  • Arron Asham: 2 assists. His role has remained consistent on the Pens: play physical, create space and get the puck to the net. Asham hasn't been integral on the offensive end of the stats sheet, but he's been valuable to this lineup, especially when reports noted Asham spoke up in the 2nd intermission against the Colorado Avalanche. The result was a 3rd period comeback for the ages. Great leader. He's playing well.
  • Matt Cooke: 1 goal, 1 assist. Cooke has certainly cooled down in the scoring department but it isn't a knock on his offensive performance. Always a threat and a pest in all three zones, Cooke is a master at making life hell for the opposition. And he's still going strong in the clean hits department. He's playing very well.
  • Sidney Crosby: 2 goals, 6 assists. Eight points in three games? Yeah, that sounds like the Crosby we all know. With a comeback that will surely make Pittsburgh sports history, Crosby announced to the world that nothing, absolutely nothing can hold him back. The best part is Crosby isn't fully up to speed yet. The only downside to his comeback has been the 8 PIMs, but that's sure to even out as his season progresses. He's playing superb
  • Pascal Dupuis: 2 goals, 7 assists. Dupuis has been on a tear this season and arguably one of the best bargains in the NHL. The guys over at Pensblog did a nice breakdown of the top scorers and how much each point has cost the team and Dupuis is right up there. It doesn't seem to matter who's on Dupuis's line, he's finding a way to produce and most of these points came without Crosby on his line. Dupuis has played above and beyond our expectations. He's playing superb.
  • Dustin Jeffrey: 0 points. Jeffrey hasn't cracked the lineup in some time since needing to strengthen his knee following some arising issues. Once he regains his health, he will have to work hard to crack the lineup that is very stacked down the middle.
  • Tyler Kennedy: 2 goals, 4 assists. Kennedy was out about a month with a concussion but has since returned to the lineup and looks to be right on track with six points in five games. He has an infectious high energy that brings life to his linemates and loves getting feisty around the net, a big reason he's seen success. He's playing very well.  
  • Chris Kunitz: 4 goals, 1 assist. His numbers are good, tied for third on the team in goals this season, but I found it difficult trying to remember Kunitz outside of his goals. This isn't a bad thing, he plays a smart game with minimal mistakes and knows his role on the ice. However, I still think he can bring more to the ice; Kunitz is being outshined by many players at this time. Now that his centerman is back, here's to hoping he can make some magic. He's playing very well.
  • Steve MacIntyre: 0 points. He's a non-factor since he rarely dresses. Now that the Pens are just about healthy, I can't see Bylsma using MacIntyre for any reason, even against teams with some heavyweights. Better to fill the roster space with skill than a player who will spend time in the box.
  • Evgeni Malkin: 5 goals, 8 assists. The numbers don't lie; Malkin is on an inspired tear. His creativity has completely saturated every one of his dekes and spin-o-ramas, a good indication that Malkin is in the zone. When he has that mindset to dominate, he does and that's exactly what's happened. Now with Crosby in tow, who knows what wondrous things we'll see from him. He's playing superb.
  • James Neal: 4 goals, 7 assists. Neal seemed to be just what the Pens needed when Crosby was out, but now that Crosby is in, we'll have to see if Neal's solid partnership with Malkin will remain or if he will have to learn Crosby's mysterious ways. Regardless, he plays a straight forward style that makes him easy to work with. As long has he has Crosby or Malkin as his centerman, Neal will find a way to finish. He's playing superb.
  • Richard Park: 0 points. The returns of some players have forced Park to spend some time in the press box. However, this doesn't take away his presence when he does suit up. Park has done well in faceoffs, the PK and is all business in his end. It's a shame to see him sit, but he needs more production in order to get the nod. He's playing well.
  • Jordan Staal: 5 goals, 2 assists. 12 goals on the season. Yes, I'm talking about Staal, the player who had 11 goals in 41 games last season. He has upped his game tremendously after a slow start but he seems to have forgotten his old ways that were more focused defensively but has now taken on a strong offensive mentality. What's crazy is his talent is being used on the third line. The Pens are rolling three solid lines and Staal just made the checking line that much more dangerous with his new-found scoring touch. He's playing superb.
  • Steve Sullivan: 4 goals, 3 assists. On my first installment, I noted Sullivan was doing everything right but scoring. Now, he's scoring. He has three goals in his last three games and handles the puck with unmatched skill. His passes on the power play remind me of Sergei Gonchar in his prime; he controls the blue line with the fluid ease of the veteran he is. He's playing superb.
  • Joe Vitale: 1 assist. Vitale is now going to be fighting for his spot for every game since he's no longer a shoe in with the Pens returning to health. He's still solid in faceoffs, but his production has to improve. It seems that Bylsma is investing in him over Park and Mac, but Vitale really needs to put his foot on the gas if he doesn't always want to be a question mark each game. He's playing well.

Defense

Pens are tied for 3rd in the Eastern Conference with 56 goals against. At this pace, they will miss their goal for 200 goals against on the season. Overall, this wasn't their best group of games, often looking sluggish as a unit at times, but I don't expect this to be a regular occurrence.

Breaking it down:

  • Deryk Engelland: 1 goal, 3 assists. I've always considered Engelland to be an underrated defenseman because many look at his heavyweight tendencies and look no further, but this recent slew of games prove why he's more than deserving of his spot on the team. Not only has he been a consistent figure on the back line, but he has also tapped into a strong offensive prowess. He's finding comfort in loaning his services to offensive attacks and isn't sacrificing his defense to do. He might end up become very offensive minded if this continues. He's playing very well.
  • Kris Letang: 1 goal, 6 assists. Just an overall great season for Letang so far. He's been feisty, physical, and excelling in all three zones. Norris talk is still very much buzzing and I only anticipate it will grow as the season progresses. Letang has a great history of capitalizing with Crosby so his return can be a big help in that department. He has two assists since Crosby's return and it will only get better. He's playing superb.
  • Ben Lovejoy: He's out with a broken wrist so nothing to really note.
  • Paul Martin: 3 assists. It's been a downward slope for Martin as his surprising mistakes continue. To say he's in a funk is an understatement and it has become very difficult to defend some of Martin's choices on the ice. The upside is his last two games (including the most recent game against the Montreal Canadiens) have been an improvement. Right now, Martin has close to no confidence so if he can bring that up, hopefully the rest can fall into place. He's playing poor.
  • Zbynek Michalek: 1 assist. Lost in the hubbub of Crosby's return was the return of the shot-blocker extraordinaire. He had a bit of a rough start but he seems to be back after missing almost a month with a broken finger. Though he's not up for 2009-2010 form, he's on his way. Hopefully the injury gave him time to reevaluate his game. He's playing okay.
  • Matt Niskanen: 1 assist. His progression has continued since the start of the season. Niskanen has become reliable in his own end. Keeping in mind he's still growing in his role on the team, Niskanen has been a great addition to the defense. He's playing well.
  • Brooks Orpik: 1 goal, 1 assist. Orpik is the heart of the defense and his style makes it very clear. This is a player who puts his body on the line on a regular basis despite taking a bad hit in his previous shift. I have no fear when Orpik is on his game and while he isn't at the top of it just yet, he's just about there. He's playing very well.
Goaltending

Goaltending for the most part has been solid, however, it has been very dependent on who is between the pipes. Brent Johnson has seemed some issues as of late. Unfortunately, it isn't entirely his fault, but he does have to shoulder some of the blame. The result is a heavy reliance on Marc-Andre Fleury to start, but how long will he be able to keep it up?

Breaking it down:
  • Marc-Andre Fleury: .916 SV%, 2.25 GAA. Fleury has been stellar, posting a 5-1-2 record in his last eight games. Throughout this tumultuous season, Fleury has been the foundation keeping the Pens upright and in good standing within the Eastern Conference. His numbers look good but more importantly, Fleury just looks good. He's bailed the Pens out when they've needed it and he's stood tall when the Pens needed to hang on to a lead. He's playing very well.
  • Brent Johnson: .856 SV%, 4.00 GAA. The struggles have continued for Johnson who has only started two games in the last 10. One was a regulation loss and the other was an overtime loss. He's definitely not as dependable as he was last season when Fleury couldn't stop a beach ball, but he has the experience to play out of it. But right now, he isn't proving to anyone that he deserves a start. The problem arises that he will need to snap out of it because over-exhausting Fleury won't do the Pens any good. He's playing poor.
Other Notes
  • Special teams have taken a small hit. The power play went 15.9% which is a little lower than the team's overall average, however, the team has scored PPGs in all games since Sid's return. The two are certainly directly related. The penalty kill, 86.5%, is also at a lower average. However, the drop in the kill seemed to be more of a fluke since the Pens allowed 4 PPGs in two games and didn't allow any more in the 10 game series. Important to note that in both of those losses, the PPGs were also the game winners, but since Michalek's return, the Pens have not allowed a PPG.
  • Pens have vastly improved in the third period, coming back from deficits to tie games. Not every one of those games translated into two points, but it's a relief to see the Pens come alive after being down, especially when the 3rd period comebacks were non existent last season. The game against the Avalanche was a great display of powering through a strong offense with sloppy goals (and some highlight reel goals as well). 
The Pens are at the top the Eastern Conference but it's anything but a comfortable position. A look down the standings and it becomes all the more evident that anything can happen and there's still a lot of hockey ahead.

 

What can't be denied is the Pens are in a great position internally. The lineup is finally healthy and now Bylsma can start playing with the line combos he wants rather than forced to use by default. But overall, things are looking good and with the news of the Paul Maurice and Bruce Boudreau firings, there isn't much we can complain about on our end.

The next 10 games will be a mini "midseason test" for the Pens. They will spend a majority of the time away and three of those away games are against rivals: the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers. And as always, games against the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings have their own interesting plot lines. 

Get ready.

Go Pens.

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