Unbeaten in the month of March, the Pens are showing the NHL just what they're made of (and potentially turning into with the trade activity on the Ray Shero front). 12 games, 12 wins, and a new confidence has blossomed from this team that, for some time, looked a little lost in the crowd.
Not anymore. That secret gear ingrained in this squad has been found and now that fans have had a taste of this unstoppable hockey style, it's difficult to imagine hockey any other way.
So how did this streak come to be? There are a few key components indicative of the Pens late domination:
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Playing 60 minutes
Comeback ability has always been an important test when assessing a team's playoff potential, though it isn't so much of a test of skill as it is of character. Regardless of placement in the standings, every team has the skill to beat any team in the league. In the NHL, it takes more than rolling a few good lines to win a game.
Closing games has been a problem for the Pens this season. Late penalties as well as an overly-blasé attitude have cost the Pens multiple games, but this team is stringing together solid 60 (and sometimes more) minutes of hockey, especially emphatic in the final period.
The Pens have scored with 10 minutes or less remaining in seven games. That comes down to 11 of the 45 total goals scored in the final minutes of the game.
Even more impressive is the Pens haven't allowed a third period goal in eight straight games. Not only are the Pens playing possessed offense to close games, but they're making it impossible for the opposition to exorcise them.
Mark Eaton: Low Key, Big Impact
Overall, the defense has had an impressive turnaround. There was no drastic change of personnel, just a group of good players finally playing well together. However, it isn't a coincidence the streak came as Shero signed Mark Eaton to a one-year deal.
As it's been mentioned umpteen times, the Pens are 10-0 with Eaton in the lineup. Just looking at his stats, you're met with columns of zeros. Eaton wasn't signed to be the hero; he was signed to give heroes a chance to be heroes. Mistakes are minimal and he's hardly noticeable because there's no pizazz to his game. The faster he can move the puck out of the defensive zone, the more valuable he becomes. With that said, his crease play has been superb, and he's eliminated many potential threats by being a good presence in front of the net.
The First is Best
Any line that includes Sidney Crosby is expected to put up stellar numbers, but with the help of Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, this threesome has quite the point collection since the start of the streak. They have a combined 51 points which makes up 41.5% of the Pens' points.
Want some perspective? The 10 players who have made up the remaining lines combined for 43 points, 35% of the team total. Then the defense got their sticks on 29 points, 23.5%.
The success of the first line shouldn't be a surprise. Outside of extenuating circumstances, this line doesn't receive the typical shuffle most of Bylsma's lines do. Not to mention, that line *knock on wood* has remained healthy all season. Consistent playing time, consistent chemistry, consistent production. Simple as that.
No lengthy winning streak is possible without the anchor of good goaltending. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun were touted as one of the best one/two goalie punch and their start to the season was pretty standard. However, they have really come to form in the latter half of the winning streak.
Lumping the numbers from all 12 games together, Vokoun has an impressive 0.930 SV% and Fleury has a 0.917 SV%. Nothing too special about those numbers, especially since the goalies don't evenly split up starts. But what if we treat their stats like the duo they're meant to be?
The first six games, Fleury and Vokoun had a combined 145 saves on 165 shots. That's a 0.879 SV%. The last six games, they combined for 170 saves on 176 shots. A staggering 0.967 SV%. Seeing this improvement during such a successful string of games is a very good sign.
Looking back at how well the Pens have been able to close games, these two are a huge reason for that. Fleury and Vokoun have shut the door on last-ditch efforts to drag games into overtime.
Nothing Special about the Special Teams
Anytime I think of special teams, I cringe. The Pens have allowed five power play goals and scored six. What's key about this fact is how little is has mattered in the grand scheme of things, namely because of the Pens' dominance even-strength.
In regards to the power play, we'll see if the returns of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will nurse it back to health once they've been cleared to play. Crosby's one-timer from the top of the circle against the Flyers was pretty wicked, but Malkin belongs in that position. Let Crosby roam behind the goal and along the goal line to keep the goalie guessing and force him to beat penalty killers along the boards, which we all know he does with pleasure.
The penalty kill makes me queasy. I so sorely miss the nonchalance I used to feel when the Pens killed another penalty. Now, I need an oxygen mask by the end of one. Newly-acquired Douglas Murray clocked big minutes on the third-place penalty killing San Jose Sharks. He will be most welcome in that regard.
No one has been hurt more by Malkin's injury than James Neal. Since Malkin was taken out by James van Riemsdyk on Mar. 9, Neal has one goal and four assists in eight games. He's due, but with the power play moving at its leisurely pace, his lack of production make more sense. 14 of Neal's 30 points this season have come on the power play. Hopefully when the Pens bring the power play up to par, Neal will find his scoring touch again.
The last match-up between the Pens and Montreal Canadiens started the Pens on this winning streak. The storyline is there, especially with Brenden Morrow playing his first game as a Penguin. Can the Pens make it 13 straight?