Record: 11-4-0, 22 points
Metropolitan Division: 1st
Eastern Conference: 1st
And just like that, the flightless birds found their wings.
The Pens are a team that can make a hockey game utterly unwatchable one day, and the next, become the unstoppable force we know is deep in their core. This past week, the latter was the theme as the Pens won four straight games in convincing fashion. What's great about the four wins is they were team wins; no one player, with the exception of Marc-Andre Fleury against the Columbus Blue Jackets, was forced to carry the team through the 60 minutes.
We've all heard the jokes about the all-around suckiness that is the Metropolitan Division, but this is a little ridiculous: The Pens are fourth in the NHL and the next highest division opponent is the New York Islanders...at seventeenth. It's so bizarre that once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, the Atlantic was considered one of the most competitive divisions in the league. Yet another reason to never take advantage of what we have in Pittsburgh.
Chris Kunitz: Big week from Kunitz who had a goal in each contest and is now tied with Sidney Crosby to lead the Pens in goals. Kunitz has all but pitched a tent outside the crease; that area is unofficially branded as his. All of his goals came from within six feet of the blue paint. Rolling at a point-per-game pace (the only Penguin other than Crosby with such numbers), Kunitz is en route to a career season so he just needs to keep doing what he's doing and not take his foot off the gas (or move his backside from blue paint).
Brandon Sutter: I have wanted to add Sutter to the "good" list for some time now but couldn't justify it until he scored, so here he is. Sutter has been getting some flack because of his lack of production. I get it and he definitely needs to pick it up offensively, but it didn't seem as urgent because of the fourth line's staggering point totals. Points aside, Sutter plays a smart game that is underappreciated. You don't always notice him right off the bat, but his defensive abilities are what make him a great asset to the team. He can strip anyone of the puck with such fluidity and then jump right on the counterattack which is why goals against are rare when he's on the ice.
Jayson Megna: It's a great year to be a Pens' rookie. This undrafted rookie played his first NHL game against the Carolina Hurricanes where he recorded his first point (an assist) then followed it up with his first goal. In four games, he's picked up three points and a whole lot of attention for his speed and eagerness to attack the net. He reminds me a lot of Kunitz in that regard, but then there's that extra flair to his stick-handling that makes him someone to watch out for. As soon as the Pens start shedding names from the injured list, Megna will find himself back in Wilkes-Barre where he will continue his development. However, it won't be long before he finds a permanent spot on the Big Pens, hopefully on Crosby's line.
Defense: The Pens allowed five goals in four games and played all-around good defense. I went into this in Saturday's recap, but the Pens have been playing much better in front of their netminders. In past games, Fleury or Jeff Zatkoff were left out to dry and either they saved the day or crumbled. Now, there are fewer breakdowns and when the puck is entering the offensive zone on the stick of an opponent, the Pens are shutting everything down to ensure the puck leaves the zone on the stick of someone in black and gold. Seeing this solid defense is what really made these games great. Sure, two superstars putting up three or four point nights can be good for ratings, but few things beat the immediate relief you feel when a cross-ice pass to the slot is broken up and your offense springs to action on an odd-man rush.
Typically, I reserve this spot to talk about the bad things, but the word bad can't be used to describe Evgeni Malkin's struggles. Scoring only 13 points in 15 games and a goal-less drought that has hit eight games, the pressure is on for the two-time Art Ross winner to hit the net. Not a terrible start, but Malkin is traditionally registering over a point per game at the start of the season.
The good news is Malkin is still playing well. In fact, he's flaunted some filthy moves that would be on highlight reels for weeks had he scored. He's also had a few breakaways that have come up empty. Nevertheless, we could be seeing angry and frustrated Malkin who takes a slashing penalty after losing the puck on a power play, but that side of Malkin is (luckily) nowhere to be seen. Malkin didn't take any penalties in this last stretch which is hopefully speaking to the support he's getting from the coaches and teammates despite the lack of production.
Malkin is going to score. It's in his blood. I think what he needs to do is lose the flair a little and get himself in scoring areas to find that dirty goal that opens the floodgates. Jussi Jokinen is a skilled player and he can hit Malkin with the puck anywhere on the ice. A healthy James Neal would be nice, too.
So what is going to happen with Dustin Jeffrey?
There are many Pens fans who have wanted to see Jeffrey become a permanent player on the team for a few seasons now. I'm not sure if this is out of pity or if they honestly feel he's earned his spot, but he's just not impressing the coaching staff enough. Jeffrey has been invisible for almost all of the nine games he's played this season, and not the good kind of invisible. Right now, Jeffrey is being straight-up, out-performed by his teammates. It was a curious move by Bylsma to play Jeffrey over Matt D'Agostini, but I'm willing to bet either D'Agostini isn't 100% yet or Bylsma was doing Jeffrey a favor by playing him against a struggling team with the hopes of jumpstarting his production. Or maybe Bylsma doesn't want any one player being a healthy scratch for too long to prevent a drop in market value.
Ultimately, Jeffrey's troubles are pretty low on the importance scale from a team perspective, however, it's been tough as a fan to watch what he's gone through as a Penguin. Should the Pens give up on him? Or does he deserve more time?
The Pens get a nice break until Wednesday when they face the New York Rangers. However, Saturday's matchup against the St. Louis Blues is sure to be a great battle and another measuring stick game. Alexander Steen is on some kind of scoring frenzy so he's one to watch, but most importantly, the Pens penalty kill better be on their A game. The Blues have the best power play in the NHL and the Pens have displayed a big weakness in their road PK (they're 28th in the NHL).