How Are the Pens Doing? Games 24-33

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 17: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his third period goal with teammates against the Buffalo Sabres during the game at Consol Energy Center on December 17, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins won 8-3. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

As a 12-year-old, I remember pouting in the car after my soccer team got trounced by our rivals, making us feel lower than dirt as they smirked down at us during the handshake.

I complained to my parents about fouls the refs missed, I complained about the girl marking me who would elbow me in the gut every time I had the ball, I complained about the sun being in my eyes on that free kick. My parents, in their infinite wisdom, simply said, "Life isn't always fair." I hated that. Knowing that life wasn't fair made me feel so helpless, that I wasn't in control of the things I so badly wanted to control.

This is our position, a place in which we're forced to sit when we have the ability to rule the world. Or at least the NHL.

I look at the Pittsburgh Penguins roster and I see a team with the infinite potential to win the Stanley Cup. They were the Fellowship of the Pens: each player had a purpose on the team to fulfill and the burden to carry the team through rough patches would be shared among those with the strength to do so. But at this point in the season, the weight of Sauron is pushing the team down. The evil injury monster that not only wants to destroy the Pens, but the rest of the NHL as well.

And it seems like there's nothing the Pens can do about it. There's nothing we, the fans, can do about it. We just sit behind our TVs, computers, the glass, and hope that open-ice collision didn't include an elbow to the head or that knee-on-knee won't cause more damage than a stinger. We now live in a circle of fear dictated by the worst case scenario, not because we're pessimistic, but because we're faced with that reality every game. Will another player go down with an injury? Will Crosby ever return to 2010-2011 form?

The last 10 games were a strange melange of highs and lows with the underlying story that the injured list continues to grow, even after the Pens' 8-3 dissection of the Buffalo Sabres that saw Craig Adams stamped with a "day-to-day" lower-body injury. But as always, the Pens continue to soldier forward with the Ringbearers Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Matt Niskanen leading the charge.

In the end, this is hopefully just another pothole in the road to the Stanley Cup. Looking on the bright side, the Pens have a lot of time to get out of this injury mess. We haven't even hit the All Star break yet.

Because of the multitude of injuries, I'm not going to focus on doing individual assessments for each player, just the players that really stood out and overall team play. As always, unless noted otherwise, I am only referring to the last 10 games which include the Nov. 26th game against the Montreal Canadiens through the Dec. 17th game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Here we go:

  • The Pens are showing they have some difficulty against the better teams in the NHL. They are 1-3 against teams currently in playoff contention and 5-1 against teams not in playoff contention. This has been an issue for more than just the last 10, however. On the season, the Pens are 6-7-2 against playoff teams and 13-4-2 against non-playoff teams. While it's important to find the wins against the struggling teams, the Pens need to find a way to defeat the top teams in the League.
  • The penalty kill stopped 35-43 penalties for 81.4%. Not a terrible stat, but it's a downgrade from the last 10 games that registered a 86.5% kill-rate. Excluding the Sabres game, the last game the Pens killed every penalty was Dec. 1st against the Washington Capitals. It's strange to see power play goals scored against the Pens, especially after the clinic they put on last season which placed them at the top of the NHL in the penalty kill. This drop in numbers, though, is a strong testament to the injuries. Without Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal and even Richard Park, the PK is vulnerable because more faith is placed on the rookie call-ups.
  • On the flip side, the once woeful power play went 8-37 for 21.6%, improving from the 15.9% registered in the 10 games prior. The Pens are tied for third in the NHL with 27 total PPGs; the change is encouraging, especially when the Pens only put up 49 PPGs total last season. James Neal, with his League-leading 10 PPGs, has been ending lives on the power play with four PPGs in this stretch, notching points in six of the eight power play goals. We've all heard about how well Neal has done on the power play, but not to be forgotten is Niskanen who contributed four points (1G, 3A) in the 8 PPGs. More about them later, but it's safe to say the Pens' power play is definitely on fire.
  • With the 5-on-4 power play so strong, it's strange to see the Pens stumbling on the 5-on-3. In key games against the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, the 5-on-3 was a pitiful 0-2 in 3:10 and 0-1 in 1:10, respectively. The success of the opposition in their kills arguably gave them momentum to carry on to their victories, especially since both games were close. There's no excuse for the poor execution of the 5-on-3; Pens will have to capitalize on those opportunities down the stretch.
  • For kicks, I decided to track which Pens were drawing penalties. Not surprisingly, Neal led the team with five, Evgeni Malkin right behind him with four and both Craig Adams and Joe Vitale had three. Drawing penalties is a result of a working Pens' system that infuses frustration in the defensive opposition because of sustained possession in the offensive zone. Forwards are drawing the penalties, so it's definitely working.
  • With injuries taking over the headlines, the Pens have had six players come up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The call ups were a necessity, but they also gave Pens fans a chance to see how well Ray Shero has drafted/traded/signed. The defensemen call ups were especially impressive and held their own for the most part. Offensively, the call ups contributed 2G, 7A. Simon Despres had his first NHL point and goal and Carl Sneep had his first NHL point.
  • Pens have shared the love pretty evenly in terms of scoring per period: 10 goals in the first, 11 in the second, and 13 in the third and overtime. Good to see the Pens getting those goals in the third period, something missing last season.
As for individual play (in no particular order):
  • Matt Niskanen: 1G, 6A. He continues to impress me. With three of the top four defensemen out with injuries, Niskanen has been an anchor for the defense. He's put up big ice time and has impressed on the power play. In fact, all of his points were on the power play save two. Having a summer and training camp in Pittsburgh has proven vital to Niskanen's current success and confidence he displays every game.
  • James Neal: 5G, 4A. What an asset Neal has been to the Pens. He scored the Pens' first goal of the season and hasn't looked back since. He's finding the net on the power play, he's playing physical down the low, his chemistry with Malkin is second to none. The praises for Neal shouldn't end.
  • Evgeni Malkin: 8G, 8A. Those numbers don't lie. There's a reason Malkin was named 3rd Star of the Week by NHL.com. When he has the puck, Malkin controls the ice and many have noted that he looks like Art Ross winner Malkin. I agree. Malkin has propelled the Pens forward despite injuries that otherwise would have crippled the team.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury: Fleury has performed admirably in front of a defense full of rookies, but one thing I've noticed is how many goals he's allowed glove-side. Out of 23 goals in eight games, 12 have found a way by his leather mitt. Rewatching those games, it definitely looks like opposing teams know about his struggles there.
  • Brent Johnson: At the start of last season, Johnson stepped up big when Fleury continued breaking down between the pipes. With the defense demonstrating the same shakiness Fleury was feeling, many thought Johnson deserved the top dog spot in goal. Now the tides have totally turned. This season, Johnson's the one who can't get his game rolling. In eight games, he's allowed 25 goals and the Pens haven't played well in front of him. The Pens have always been touted for having one of the best 1-2 goalie punches in the NHL but this is anything but true with how Johnson's been playing.
  • Steve Sullivan: 2G, 3A. One question resonated above the rest this summer when Shero signed Sullivan. Would injuries hinder Sullivan like they have his entire career? He's currently one of six Penguins who has played all 33 games this season and has contributed consistently on the scoreboard. No injury issues so far *knock on wood*.
  • Sidney Crosby: 5A. We're all feeling the concern for Crosby. He's been sidelined after taking a hit from David Krejci against Boston and we haven't seen him since, at first for precautionary reasons, and now for the return of the dreaded concussion-like symptoms. At this point, the concern isn't that he will never play again, but is this what Crosby's career will be? Will he be sidelined with concussion-like symptoms after a rough game? Dr. Mickey Collins projected Crosby would make a full recovery so we can only hope he pulls through.

All things considered, the Pens are doing well. They went 6-4 with a depleted lineup, depending on their power play to get the job done. This is why good starts are important; it created some wiggle room for times like these. Players like Jordan Staal, Adams, Ben Lovejoy and Paul Martin sound like they could be rejoining to team in the not too distant future. Kris Letang and Michalek are the big question marks because they have concussion-like symptoms.

Life for the Pens just doesn't seem fair right now, but we can only hope for the best. As for the rest of the lineup, they've been holding their own, but games like Ottawa's remind us how much the Pens are hurting.

Keep the faith.

Go Pens.

Also, I'd love some feedback on how I do these major analyses. Do you prefer the overviews in this format or do you want the breakdown of each player like I would typically do?

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