To clear the air after the craziness, and ultimately disappointing ending, of the last game, I thought about the first 17 games a whole. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 11-6-0, in solid shape, and to me, importantly they are four and five points ahead of the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively. Not bad, not bad.
Individually there have been some great performances so far too.
You have to start with Sidney Crosby, who has so far looked worlds away from the player who’s had concussion problems lingering in the past two years. Crosby’s looked like his past, dominant self, scoring 25 (7 goals, 18 assists) points and playing in all 17 games and is tied for the league lead in points with Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek. Crosby’s health status was still a question mark until he could prove that he can play like normal, and so far so good.
Then you have two guys with huge redemption years so far. Marc-Andre Fleury, after a dreadful playoff, is sporting an 8-3-0 record with a 2.34 goals against and a .914 save percentage. Fleury’s been great in February where he’s 6-1 and a .927 save %. A team is usually going to win or lose based off a handful of shots that a goalie will save (or let in) and so far Fleury has been generally stopping them. He needed a bounce-back and he’s gotten it.
Speaking of bouncing back, Paul Martin has been the Penguins most consistent defensive player, and is 4th on the team in assists (10) to go along with his two goals, including the memorable game-winner late against Buffalo. A lot has been written and made of Martin needing to play better, and, whatever the reason, it seems clear he has a lot more confidence and has been a lot better in providing some much needed defensive stability for a team that at times desperately needs it.
It seems like a lifetime ago, when James Neal first got traded to the Penguins and he only scored 2 goals in 27 games (playoffs included) in the spring of 2011 as a Penguin. Of course, injuries meant he had Mark Letestu and Jordan Staal as centers and not a playmaker like Evgeni Malkin. With Malkin, Neal scored 40 in 2011-12, but a lot of people had the reasonable question of would Neal be able to replicate that big year? That question has been answered affirmatively with Neal netting 12 goals in the first 17 games, tying him again with Vanek for first in the league in that category. His release, shot-power, ability to find the ice and then receive Malkin’s passes are converting directly into goals.
A lot of fans try to solve the problem of the third member of the Malkin-Neal wing by reverting to last year, when Chris Kunitz scored 61 points and help power that line to be the top offensive unit in the league. While that might help Malkin and Neal, what about Kunitz? He’s a third option on that line and with Malkin and Neal among the league leaders in shots on goal, there’s only so much puck to go around. Keeping Kunitz with Crosby opens up more chances for Kunitz to touch the puck, and it’s paid off handsomely so far with Kunitz scoring 6 goals and adding 13 assists in the 17 games played. Kunitz can be the 3rd guy on a great line, but he’s showing he can also be a pretty good 2nd guy on a top line as well.
So, with the poll below and the comments open to debate it out- who do you think is having the best individual season so far for the Pens?