With the Olympics-altered 2009/10 season already half over, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back and see where the Penguins stand on this New Year’s Day as compared to last. Just like the stock market, past performance is no gaurantee of future returns…but it still helps provide some context on how the team has performed so far when benchmarked against where they were at this point last season.
Last season, you will recall that the Penguins started out under a different coach and began the season with their top two defensemen out of the lineup (Sergei Gonchar for shoulder surgery and Ryan Whitney for foot surgery). In their stead, the Penguins had to depend on some very young, NHL-inexperienced defensemen in Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski to step up and help hold the blueline. They also started the season in Stockholm Sweden, and had to deal with the challenges of international travel during the outset of the regular season. This made for a tumultuous month of October in which they went 5-4-2. They recovered quite nicely in November, posting an impressive 9-2-1 record, before slipping to 5-8-1 in December. By New Year’s Eve last season, the Penguins had compiled the following stats:
New Year’s Eve 2008:
Games Played: 37
Points: 42 (57% points efficiency)
Goals For: 118 (3.2 per game)
Goals Against: 110 (2.98 per game)
This season, the Penguins started the season with a healthy roster, and seemed to pick up right where they left off in June. The Penguins jumped out to a blistering pace in October, going 11-3-0 for the month and outscoring their opponents 48-31. Then came November, and the Penguins started to drop like flies to injury, with the Penguins’ defense taking the biggest hit. In November, the Penguins lost 65 man-games due to injury, including 5 of their 6 regular defensive starters and one player from each forward line. November man-games lost to injuries included Alex Goligoski (missed 7-games), Sergei Gonchar (missed 7-games), Tyler Kennedy (missed 11-games), Chris Kunitz (missed 9-games), Kris Letang (missed 9-games), Evgeni Malkin (missed 5-games), Jay McKee (missed 6-games), Brooks Orpik (missed 4-games), and Max Talbot (missed 7-games). Despite this incredible challenge, the Penguins still managed an 8-6-0 record in November, but were outscored 46-44 as their defensive lines at one point consisted of over 80% call-ups from their AHL affiliate. To their credit, the call-ups performed admirably under the ciircumstances, and 4 of the 6 games lost were early in the month at the outset of the injury maelstrom. Once the Penguins started to get healthy again, they went on to post an 7-5-1 record in December, outscoring their opponents again 38-29. Sidney Crosby has been having a very good season so far, and is on pace to score 46-goals, while Jordan Staal is right on pace for another 22-goal season. As of New Year’s Eve this season, the Penguins have posted the following stats:
New Year’s Eve 2009:
Games Played: 41
Points: 53 (63.1% points efficiency)
Goals For: 130 (3.17 per game)
Goals Against: 106 (2.59 per game)
Observations: The Penguins have arguably posted better results at this point over last season, even with the short off-season, condensed game schedules, and rash of injuries dealt to them in November. The Penguins have accumulated more wins and points over last season, and while their offensive production has been on-par with last season (even with Evgeni Malkin missing a couple of weeks), their defensive game has noticeably improved. This is notable given that while the Penguins played last season without their top-2 defensemen, this season they played most of the month of November with just one of their starting defensemen in the lineup. The Penguins have also benefitted from a sharper Marc-Andre Fleury and a very solid backup netminder in Brent Johnson. In season’s past, Marc-Andre Fleury has had slower starts and strong finishes. This season, while he has had a few disappointing outings, he started the season much stronger in net and is second in the league in wins behind Martin Brodeur.
The Way Forward: Last season the Penguins slumped over the holidays losing all 5 games from December 27th through Jan 5th. This season, the Penguins have so far lost 3 games since December 27th with two games coming up this weekend. Last season the Penguins would go on to win just 5 games in January, losing 9-games that month (1 in OT), with troubles continuing into mid-February before Coach Therrien was released in favor of Bylsma. Over the past couple of seasons, the Penguins’ big points drive has come down the stretch as they have headed towards the playoffs. Last season, for example, they went on an 18-3-4 tear under Coach Bylsma after mid-February. The season prior, they went 15-6-3 in that same timeframe under Coach Therrien.
While it is impossible to know what this season holds in store, fans can hope that the Penguins will follow suit from the past 2 seasons and have another strong finish. However, there are a couple of things that could make this season’s stretch drive quite challenging for the Penguins. First, coming off from back-to-back extended seasons, there is a real question as to whether the fatigue and/or injury factor will set in for the Penguins. Perhaps they got over that hump in November, but there still remains a genuinely increasing risk that this could become a factor as the season wears on. Second, what effect will the Olympic break have on the Penguins (and their opponents, for that matter). For the stars who have been selected to repesent their countries, the Olympics present a distraction and another risk for fatigue and injury that could impact their performance on return to the NHL. For those not participating, the break could provide a welcome rest, but at the risk of accumulating a little rust in their games. The Olympic break also runs the risk of affecting team momentum and chemistry. The Olympians will have to adjust to playing with new linemates, and all players will see their team’s cohesiveness disrupted at a critical point in the schedule as they run down the stretch towards the playoffs.
It will certainly be an interesting second half to follow, with the Penguins looking for that ever-elusive 3-peat visit to the Eastern Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals. While the odds are certainly against them, we have to ask whether there is any team better suited to face this mighty challenge? We think not.