I can't remember a 10-game stretch feeling like an eternity in a long time, but we are now at the end of the mad dash, completely out of breath, but ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had plenty of those the last few weeks, and in many instances, their best colors didn't shine. They went through a brutal six-game losing streak, endured what looked to be a PR disaster only to finish out on a good note. That's the way hockey rolls. Teams will go through crazy times, but those are the times that make winning championships perfect. It's the time of sin before absolution.
I hate making comparisons between this season and 2009, but they're there. The last few seasons, the Pens have had lineups that were more than capable of winning the Stanley Cup, but that X factor was always missing, a hunger that comes from a carnal place that is impossible to turn off. Many times, it comes from a place that has seen dark times, just like the 2009 team did. They were equipped with talent but those players went through trials and tribulations as a team which motivated the surge that propelled the team from 10th to 4th place.
The key was that they were healthy. Healthy is undoubtedly the Pens' biggest hurdle this season. However, while it felt like the team would soon become extinct, Pens fans blinked and suddenly, Dustin Jeffrey, Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin and Richard Park were back in the lineup. Most of those players haven't been key figures in the lineup, but seeing players return to health has to be a huge psychological lift.
If the Pens were meant to have a turning point in the season, we have already experienced it. Hopefully what we're seeing now is the start of the uphill push to the cherished silver chalice.
Here we go:
- The Pens challenges against teams in playoff contention (as of Tuesday) continues: they went 2-6 against such teams and defeated both teams not in playoff contention. A quick look ahead in the schedule and you can see the Pens will have a chance to redeem themselves against some teams who defeated them in this last stretch. They will also face other formidable opponents. The tests continue.
- Let's be honest, the power play looked like the 2010-2011 power play. It went 5-31 for 16.1%, a major setback from the previous 10 games that saw a power play clicking at 21.6%. Interesting enough, during the losing streak, the Pens only scored power play goals in two of the games, one goal per game. Power play goals were scored in each of the wins except one.
- As for the penalty kill, Pens went 24-27 for 88.9%. What I immediately noticed is the Pens took far less penalties than the last 10 before (43 penalties). They were rewarded for this change because their kill-rate improved. Similar to the trend in the power play, the Pens were undefeated when they didn't allow a power play goal. Conversely, they lost half their games when a power play was scored against.
- Both James Neal and Evgeni Malkin led the Pens in taking the most penalties (seven and five, respectively) and giveaways (six and seven). I do want to note that Marc-Andre Fleury registered five giveaways. It's never a good sign to see your goalie give the puck away that many times, especially since a few of those pucks ended up in the back of the net.
- Malkin was also the leader in drawing penalties (seven), not too surprising since opposing players have to work the hardest to knock him off the puck. Surprisingly, Matt Cooke was second in line with four and Fleury was third with three. Cooke's numbers should be higher, but the way officiating has been going as of late, I can't see that happening. It has been open season on Cooke.
- On the season, the Pens have 114 goals against. Fleury will have to stand on his head for a few games if the Pens are serious about their goal of less than 200 goals by the end of the season.
- The real story of the Pens last 10 games can be told by looking at the goals scored per shots per period. In the first periods, the Pens registered 122 shots and netted only five of them. For the second periods, seven goals on 132 shots. And third periods, 10 goals on 102 shots. They were averaging 2.2 goals a game, much lower than what they are capable. It continues to be refreshing to see the Pens have such solid third periods after last season's abysmal numbers. But frustration was playing a clear part in the Pens losses; taking that many shots that mean nothing but a tick on the shots total definitely got to them.
- Simon Despres: He was nothing short of impressive before suffering a lower-body injury against the Ottawa Senators. As a rookie, he showed supreme confidence carrying the puck into the offensive zone and a deadly slapshot on the power play that will trigger nightmares in the opposition. Despres' future on the Pens is bright and we will see him as a regular on the blue line very soon.
- Eric Tangradi: On the flip side, it seems like the Tangradi Train could be coming to a halt. He's been a regular call up since he was acquired in 2009, but improvement during his time with the big boys has been anything but drastic. Tangradi only played in the last three games and while he's had some quality chances, chances aren't what give you contracts. Looking at a long term blueprint of the Pens, I can't see Tangradi a part of it. He's meant to be a top six winger and I don't see him passing any of the current top six wingers any time soon. I wouldn't be surprised if Tangradi becomes trade bait.
- James Neal: He scored four goals and they so happened to be the only four games the Pens won. Ironically enough, none of them were on the power play despite becoming a power-play-goal-scoring machine. Hopefully Neal can get on the score sheet more often since, on the season, the Pens are 15-4-1 when he scores a goal. They are 7-2-1 when it's a power play goal.
- Evgeni Malkin: All I can say is thank God for Malkin's health this season. He's been everything the Pens have needed.
- Richard Park: Park returned to the lineup five games in and he has proved why Ray Shero is the genius he is. You can tell he's fighting for his slot and the amount of hustle and forecheck he brings to the game is admirable. He's paid to not be noticeable, but Park has drawn a lot of attention in the best way possible.
- Steve MacIntyre: Placed on waivers and cleared. Registering only 2:33 of ice time per game feels like a waste of a roster spot. You can see how desperate the Pens were to dress a player who at times played less than a minute per game.