The Pittsburgh Penguins are 13 games into the season and the month of October is officially in the books. Many coaches, included our very own Dan Bylsma, like to divide the season into groups to better analyze the team's overall play as the season progresses. I will never claim to hold the majesty Bylsma does, but I'm going to take a page out of his book and do the same for the entire season.
I've divided the season into seven clumps of 10 games and one group of nine games. Upon the completion of the tenth (or ninth game), I'll put together an analysis of how the Pens are doing, individually and as a team, in that 10 or nine game span. Many of you might have noticed that my math would only bring me to 79 games. Unless I specifically say otherwise, I am leaving out the Pens' first three games of the season, the Western Canada Road Trip, since I already covered the games in-depth here.
With that said, let's take a look at how the Pens are doing.
The never-ending story of the Pens seems to be injuries. It's all we seem to hear about and those of us subscribed to Pens text alerts dread the sound of our buzzing cell phones because of the imminent bad news. Despite playing stretches of this season without the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Dustin Jeffrey and Tyler Kennedy due to injury and Kris Letang due to suspension, the Pens have had an impressive first month.
Including the first three games of the season, the Pens went 8-3-2, a nice improvement from last season's 6-5-1 October start. With Staal out for one game, Malkin for seven and Crosby for 13, the amount of generated offense has exceeded the expectations of many. The center position has been the Pens' pièce de résistance, the source of offense and largely the reason for the Stanley Cup win in 2009. "Pittsburgh needs to trade for better wingers," many bellowed, but the wingers have answered. 22 of the Pens' 37 goals have come from the wingers.
The Pens offense have simply stuck to Bylsma's game plan and thus far, the plan has worked. If it's working before the offense is 100% healthy, then there's a lot of good news coming up.
As for the players individually...
- Craig Adams: When you don't notice players like Adams, it usually means he's doing his job. But Adams finds a way to make himself noticed, be it a big hit or a big block on the penalty kill. He's playing well.
- Arron Asham: Consistent physical presence which is what Shero brought him on the Pens to be. Asham hasn't done much on the score sheet, but based on his history, this should be no surprise. His biggest moment is easily the fight with Washington Capitals' Jay Beagle. The Pens might not have Godard, but Asham certainly knows how to pack a punch. He's playing well.
- Matt Cooke: What a season for Cooke so far. Despite being known mostly for his defensive play, he put up six points and has become a legitimate offensive threat. Most importantly, Cooke has truly changed his game, allowing his hockey skills to shine in all three zones without the shadow of dirty hits. He's playing superb.
- Sidney Crosby: When I look into the next 10 games, I will have something to write about for Crosby. His return draws closer, fellow Pens fans.
- Pascal Dupuis: Another winger who has really upped his game, he registered seven points and has been the secondary scoring the Pens have needed. Like Cooke, on offense or defense, Dupuis has gone above and beyond expectations. He's playing very well.
- Dustin Jeffrey: Unfortunately, Jeffrey hasn't given me much to look at, but his five total games played is the reason. No points, strong in the dot but he's still getting back in his groove. All things considered, he's playing okay.
- Tyler Kennedy: Currently out with concussion-like symptoms. Started the season on a good note, but he didn't play enough to show much. Now we're left hoping this injury won't affect Kennedy in the long run.
Chris Kunitz: Shero made a statement by recently signing Kunitz to a two-year extension. The reaction was positive for the most part, but also a little indifferent since Kunitz has had a slow start to the season. He's certainly picked up the tempo in the last few games but he needs to make a bigger splash before everyone can rest easy about him staying in the Burgh. Crosby's return will probably be a huge help. He's playing well.
Mark Letestu: Letestu has been the season's disappointment. After last season's start that put his name alongside other Calder Trophy nominees, a sophomore slump has hit him hard. He's only registered one assist on the season and was ultimately sentenced to the press box until other offensive injuries called him back to the ice. Letestu seems to have lost his identity on the team and it's glaringly obvious in the stats department. He's playing poorly.
Steve MacIntyre: Mac has gotten a chance to play because of the injury bug (and Letestu's benching) but he hasn't been much of a presence on the ice. Maybe that's because he rarely plays over three minutes a game and has only delivered a few monster hits. The decision to keep Mac at the NHL level raised a few questions. Is a three minutes/game player worth the roster space, especially when he isn't playing every game? He hasn't proven it yet. Then again, we all know Mac was signed as an enforcer and he hasn't had a chance to swing his brass knuckles. At the same time, in a game that is seeing the decline of fights, who knows what his future holds. He's playing okay.
- Evgeni Malkin: High expectations followed Malkin into the season, mainly coming from his own desire to find some consistency in his game. Needless to say, he has reminded many why he won the Art Ross Trophy in 2009, despite finding himself injured early on. Four points in four games is nothing to be ashamed of, especially since we have all witnessed Malkin's ability to control the Pens and their opposition. There have been some speed bumps, including his two penalties against the Toronto Maple Leafs that resulted in two power play goals, but Malkin will always be a very positive addition to any lineup. Staying healthy will obviously be key. He's playing very well.
James Neal: When it comes to Neal, we're all breathing a sigh of relief while mumbling a thank you prayer to the hockey gods. He has taken the Pens on his back and led them to victory more times than we would have ever imagined last season. Eight goals and one assist placed him on top of the Pens in this 10-game stretch and also second in the NHL in goals overall. Most importantly, Neal has been the consistent offensive player the Pens have needed when the lineup has been so inconsistent. Together with Malkin, they make a terrifying duo who are just getting warmed up. Neal is playing superb.
Richard Park: Signing Park opened the door to some name and Asian jokes, but I don't think anyone expected him to have the impact he's had. Brought on to be a penalty killer and overall defensive winger, Park has taken on to the Pens' style while contributing offensively, including a shorthanded goal. Before the start of the season, Park's name was being thrown around as a possible healthy scratch, but he has made a strong case to remain in the lineup. Fabulous signing that I love more and more with each game. He's playing very well.
- Jordan Staal: Staal has seen both ends of the spectrum this season, starting slow but quickly picking up his game and turning into a true workhorse. He did a 360 during the New Jersey Devils game, a two-goal effort, and hasn't looked back since. Staal missed the Leafs game due to a lower body injury, but Bylsma noted he wouldn't be out for long. This is big since the Pens haven't allowed a power play goal this season while he was on the ice. He's been playing very well.
Steve Sullivan: This season's Neal. Sullivan has been doing everything right while on a line with Neal and Malkin and the chemistry between the three is palpable. But the guy seemingly couldn't score a goal on a breakaway with an empty net. It's become increasingly frustrating to watch so many missed opportunities, but as we learned with Neal, a strong work ethic will always be rewarded. Once Sullivan gets that messy goal, the rest will come in bunches. He's playing very well.
Joe Vitale: One thing the Pens do well is bring up good talent for cheap and that is Vitale. He has made a good transition to the NHL from the AHL and has absolutely dominated in faceoffs. He is in the top 15 in the NHL in faceoff percentage which is huge when possession is a major part of the Pens' style. He's recently ventured toward average play, but this comes with the transition to the big boy league. Nevertheless, he has been a good addition to the lineup. He's playing well.
Pittsburgh is notorious for its offensive star power, but Shero changed that by bringing in top notch defensemen at a discounted price. They have done well so the D made set a goal to allow no more than 200 goals this season. A challenge, no doubt, but very possible with the talent on the roster.
So far, the Pens are third in the NHL with 2.08 goals allowed per game. They have only allowed four goals once. With that said, there is still a ways before the defensive unit is as dominant as they were last season.
As for the players individually...
Deryk Engelland: It's been a battle between Engelland and Lovejoy for the sixth defensive spot. Engelland has edged Lovejoy in that department, but only by one game, namely because of injuries. But Engelland would be the go to defenseman once the lineup is healthy. Mistakes have been a minimum and have demonstrated very underrated defensive skills. He's playing well.
- Kris Letang: Once again, Letang's name is in the mix for the Norris trophy. His offense has exploded, putting him fourth in scoring among defenseman on the season, despite his two-game suspension. At the same time, his defense hasn't taken a step away from where it should be. Physical play, good transition and smart in all three zones, Letang is doing it all. He's playing superb.
Ben Lovejoy: Not the best start for Lovejoy which could mean he will be benched over Engelland, but he now has an opportunity to show his stuff with the injuries to the blue line. Unfortunately, he's made his fair share of costly mistakes which will happen as he continues to grow in his position as a defenseman in the NHL level, but he needs to keep up with the rest of the young D or he'll get left behind. This is exactly what's happening. He's playing okay.
Paul Martin: Martin's skill with the puck is something to behold, probably a factor in his job to carry the puck on the power play. His numbers haven't been good, especially in the +/- department, but that doesn't take away from the confidence with which he plays his position. Mistakes have been a little more common than usual, but I'll chock it up to the start of the season. His biggest criticism would be that he holds on to the puck too long. Other than that, Martin is playing well.
- Zbynek Michalek: Michalek is also victim to a rough start only it has shown in his play as well as his numbers. Poor positioning and going for the block instead of playing the puck/body are just some of the critiques thrown at him. He was starting to improve but after blocking a shot with his hand, he is now looking at missing a good month with a broken finger. Hopefully he can return refreshed, putting his poor start behind him. He was playing poor.
Matt Niskanen: Arguably the team goat last season, Niskanen has shown tremendous improvement overall this season. Easily the most improved right after Neal, his most dramatic change during the offseason was his level of confidence. There is a new authority when he carries the puck and when he doesn't have the puck. It also helps that he's been helping offensively. Niskanen is doing well.
Brooks Orpik: Orpik has only played five games this season because of offseason hernia surgery so, like Jeffrey, it's difficult to analyze his play. It took him a game to get going and by his second game, was delivering his signature checks. I have no doubt that Orpik, the heart of the defense, will catch up to speed quickly. He's playing well.
The Penguins have established themselves as a strong force in the goaltending position. The one-two punch of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson has proven to be one of the strongest goaltending duos in the NHL. This idea was challenged when Fleury had one of the worst starts of his career last season, but went from sieve to brick wall by the end of the season.
Hoping to continue that good stretch into this season, the pressure was on Fleury and Johnson as well.
- Marc-Andre Fleury: He's certainly made up for his terrible start last season. Fleury boasts an overall .934 save percentage and has been called upon, more often than not, to save the Pens when they were in a pickle. He's playing very well.
- Brent Johnson: Johnson has had a tougher time, only claiming one win so far. However, in his losses, the quality of hockey was always good, some of those losses coming at the hands of a shootout or overtime power play goal. Johnson has had a little bad luck and I'm sure his numbers will improve as Bylsma calls him to man the pipes more often. He's playing well.
All things considered, the Pens are in pretty good shape right now and are still looking to improve as more players return to the lineup, namely their captain. The Pens should be pleased with the players who have stood tall in the absence of the top three centers as well as the power play which has improved dramatically (sitting ninth in the NHL at an unbelievable 21.8%) and strong penalty kill that is atop the NHL.
Even with the nagging injuries popping up here and there, the Pens have been able to slay those demons without breaking stride and now it's only a matter of time before Crosby returns. The good times almost feel upon us.