To a man the Pittsburgh Penguins deserve a lot of credit over their past few games. The injuries have mounted, taking out key players up and down the lineup. Self-inflicted wounds with two suspensions have added to the lack of depth at the most critical time.
But it hasn’t mattered, the Penguins have kept winning. Five straight. 10 out of the last 11. A lot of different faces have shuffled in and out of the lineup, but the consistent result has been winning. What are the 5 biggest reasons?
1 - Dy-no-mite goaltending
In the month of December Marc-Andre Fleury is rocking some sick stats (6-1, 1.82 GAA, .941 save %), which has boosted him to the league leading goaltender in Wins, and he’s right up there with a .924 save %. Fleury has been solid. Backup Jeff Zatkoff has won his last five starts, and he’s 2-0 since November 30th, giving up only 1 goal in each game, good for a .971 save %. Zatkoff hasn’t had a lot of work, but he’s played well. With the Penguins still playing 3 games in the next five days, followed by a 3 day Christmas break which leads into another 3 games in 5 days before the end of 2013, Zatkoff should get a little more work in the near future.
2- Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz fueling the offense
Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz make up 40% of the normal top Pens power play. The other 60% (Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Paul Martin/Kris Letang) have all been in and out of the lineup this season. Crosby has been held off the scoreboard just 7 out of the 36 games this season, but in the past month he’s taken it to another level, recording points in 14 out of the last 16 games since November 18th, and is currently on an 8 game point streak (6g, 7a).
Kunitz is almost as consistent- scoring points in 12 of the last 16 games and has pitched in at a point-per-game rate in December with 4g and 4a in 8 games.
3- Special teams being special
At 26.9%, the Penguins currently have the top power play in the league. At 86.9%, their penalty kill is currently 3rd best league-wide. No other team in the league can boast having a Top 5 unit in both specialty teams.
Even though the core of the Penguins defense has been decimated by injury, 3 of the 4 primary PK’ing forwards (Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Brandon Sutter) have played every night. Throw in solid goaltending and some nice fill-in work by defensemen like Matt Niskanen, Olli Maatta, Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo and the PK has remained viable.
As mentioned above, the power play is lacking in personnel, but plugging Jussi Jokinen in with Kunitz and Crosby has provided enough skill up front to make plays with the puck, as illustrated by the slick passing play between the three that resulted in a goal last night.
4- Early leads
The Pens are 20-2-0 when they score first this season, which is tops in the league in percentage and total times getting the first goal. They’ve also recorded the last goal in each of the last seven games, you’d have to go back to December 3rd to find a game (vs. the Islanders) where Pittsburgh trailed 1-0. It’s a cliché, but it’s true- a game is a lot easier to play from in front than having to dig out of a hole. Especially short-handed in man-power and talent, the Pens probably don’t have the firepower to mount a lot of comebacks. But, since they’ve frequently been scoring the first goal, they often times haven’t had to.
5 – Secondary help
The Pens haven’t been quite as banged up with forwards, and some players with NHL experience have chipped in. Chris Conner and Joe Vitale strung three game point streaks together (both snapped last night). Sutter has chipped in offensively with a couple of goals, Pascal Dupuis has points in 5 of the last 7 games.