Each of the first five games with the re-entry of Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has shown a very natural process when trying to fit a highly skilled anchor player back into a lineup that has had to maintain and sustain for nearly 10 months without him. The fact that it has only taken a handful of games to re-assimilate speaks to the coaching philosphy, the team mindset, and the overall expectations of each individual who knows his obviously well-defined role.
New York Islanders at Pittsburgh — the Eagle Has Landed
The much anticipated and overly analyzed return of Sid came with a mixture of excitement and trepidation for players, fans, commentators, and coaches. My own trepidation came from the fact that Sid would be debuting against the New York Islanders, a team that still leaves the lingering stench and disdain of the blow-up game of last season, which left bodies, equipment and penalty minutes strewn everywhere. Yeah, let’s throw Sid back into that. Still, the atmosphere in the Consol Energy Center lived up to its electrifying name, and the Welcome Back Sid placards created their own kind of white out in the arena. Adrenalin was high, and the Islanders ended up being on the very short end of the hockey stick in a final 5-0 drubbing. Sidney? Just a mere 4-point night (2G, 2A) and a +3, not to mention a not-too-shabby 67% in the face-off circle, and he survived a couple of decent hits. The goals were vintage Sid, and while there might have been the temptation of his teammates to fall into spectator status, they stuck together like glue and put together a commanding performance.
St. Louis Blues at Pittsburgh — the Hangover
As with too much sugar, too much alcohol, too much excitement, there is always that other damnable shoe that drops. Such was the case with the Penguins when they came up against the St. Louis Blues two nights later. The Penguins were flat and sloppy in their own end through 40 minutes of play, and then had to dig themselves out of the scoring hole, managing to eek out a point by forcing overtime, but falling short of the win. Not all of it was their fault though as the Blues came in with a pretty weighty game plan that saw the boards being taken away for the long transitional pass, and difficulties breaking out of the Penguins’ own end as they were harried by one and sometimes two drones buzzing the Penguins D-men.
Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh at Montreal and Beyond – Equilibrium
The third Sid-ful game against Ottawa showed some very interesting adjustments that seemed to take the pressure off the players and allowed them to stay sharp as Coach Dan Bylsma shuffled the lines early and often with anticipated combinations such as James Neal playing with Sid and Evgeni Malkin playing wing to Jordan Staal’s center. An interesting change was putting Pascal Dupuis as center, and he showed his versatility as the Penguins won 6-3 with goals coming from 6 different Penguins: Pascal Dupuis, Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Steve Sullivan, Tyler Kennedy, and Evgeni Malkin. Sid picked up another 3 points with an assist on half the goals (as of the Washington Capitals game on December 1, Crosby leads the league in 3-point games with 68). The Penguins looked settled and cohesive in Ottawa, which carried into the ever-edgy meeting against the Montreal Canadiens, and it was needed. An open-ice nose-breaking hit on Penguin blueliner Kris Letang as he jumped into offensive play and was in mid-shot when the blow came made Montreal pay in the OT with the game-winning goal that took the wind out of the Habs sails and the starch out of their shorts–very, very satisfying.
Other intangibles include some relief on my part (OK, call it cautious optimism) that the powerplay with Sid inserted in place of Kunitz has not gone back to the former leisurely softball toss in the backyard. With Sullivan continuing his duties as crisp entry-man, Neal as a big presence in front of the net, and Sid and Geno zipping and zig-zagging, sometimes down low on the line, sometimes on the right and then the left circle, even floating the blueline, the speed and directional changes continue. The Pens are 19.2% on home ice with an almost even 18.5% on the road and an overall 18.9%, putting them in 8th place in the league. On the penalty kill, the Penguins are second only to the New Jersey Devils with 97.0% at home and struggling of late on the road at 84.9% for an overall 89.5% going into Washington.
With the exit of enforcer Eric Goddard, Deryk Engelland’s reputation has become widespread enough to act as a deterrent to opponents who would rather steer clear of Engelland than engage him. That’s OK because Arron Asham and Tyler Kennedy like to dance and have done it with relish. Chris Kunitz seems to also have crowned himself as the hit police, increasing his physicality, particularly when he’s on the ice with Sid, keeping watch for potential situations that might endanger his captain.
All in all, there is much cause for optimism as the Penguins stay at the high end of the conference and the league with their comprehensive play. There will still be some lapses as was the case with the 2nd period breakdown against the Rangers on November 29th which landed the Pens a 4-3 loss, but this team is deep and stalwart, stoic in their resolve to keep a steady pace even as they suffer the loss of two more players to concussions in D-men Letang and Zbynek Michalek. The plague of injuries upon this team has become so commonplace that I don’t think they even blink at it anymore let alone panic, and why should they panic? They’ve managed to carry on over months and months without their best player–that makes them a scary team.