After a 3-game road slide in which the Penguins could barely generate any shots on goal (much less goals), the Penguins have started to find their mojo. In their 2-games since the start of November, the Penguins have found the back of the net 11 times. Even more importantly, those goals came from 7 different Penguins players to include Miroslav Satan (3G), Max Talbot (2G), Petr Sykora (2G), Alex Goligoski (1G), Evgeni Malkin (1G), Tyler Kennedy (1G), and Jordan Staal (1G). It is the spark that was needed to get this team going and to develop some chemistry and positive momentum.
A couple of factors helped contribute to the dramatic turnaround. First, Michel Therrien retooled the lines and separated Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. While they are great together, it concentrates too much power on one line and makes it easier for opposing teams to focus their defensive talents against one line. Instead, Max Talbot was moved to the Sidney Crosby line and some instant magic was created. Max Talbot’s hunger for the puck, coupled with his speed, tenacity, and scoring ability make him an excellent fit with Sidney Crosby. As a result, Talbot picked up 2-goals in the last 2-games, including a short-hander. It also freed up Evgeni Malkin to do what he does best, play at center with Petr Sykora on his wing. The two players already have a well-developed chemistry and they produced well together in the last 2-games.
The second factor that contributed to the dramatic turnaround was the extended 5-day layoff between the road game against the Blues and the home game against the Oilers. During the layoff, the Penguins were able to get some significant practice in and focus the team, particularly the newcomers, on playing the system. This was particularly important since the Penguins have been trying to make up for the shortened training camp and trip to Europe at the beginning of the season. While they haven’t completed solved the challenge of getting the players disciplined in the system yet, they have shown improvement over the past 2-games. Now they need to focus on playing the system to perfection for the full 60-minutes of a game. The game against the Oilers should help reinforce the benefits of the system, and the drawbacks of not applying it to the full game.
Getting back to the line retooling, I can’t help but really like the offensive line combinations used against the Oilers on Thursday night. They appeared to work very well. In particular the top line of Talbot-Crosby-Satan really seemed to click and cause havoc for the Oilers defense, generating turnovers by the dozen. Satan’s finishing touch has thus far exceeded my wildest expectations and has apparently bolstered his confidence to a career high level. His between-the-legs goal against the Oilers was simply jaw dropping. I already spoke about the advantages of the second line combination of Dupuis-Malkin-Sykora, or at least the Malkin-Sykora portion of it. Dupuis adds some speed to keep up with Malkin when he is at full steam powering up the ice, leaving Sykora to get himself free and set up his laser accurate shot. The 3rd line of Kennedy-Staal-Cooke had the perfect blend of speed, grit and reach. If we can just get Staal’s scoring pump primed, it will be an even more formidable combination giving the Penguins great depth. Finally, the line of Fedotenko-Zigomanis-Godard did their job of adding energy and keeping the peace. Godard rises to the task much more than Georges Laraque did and he does so with authority. I am not certain that this is the right place for Fedotenko in the long run, but it will work for now. Eventually I see him moving to the 2nd line, Dupuis dropping to the 3rd and Cooke dropping to the 4th. On defense, I was glad to see Mark Eaton taken out of the lineup for a game or two. His play has not been up to par yet, and likely results from his extended time last season on the injured reserve. Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski continue to impress me given their youth and level of maturity.
The Penguins hit the ice again later today when they travel New York and take on the Islanders, a team that has really been struggling this season. With just 4-wins in 13 games, they own the last place in the league. Hopefully the Penguins will go in and play a full 60-minutes of their system and not get over-confident against a team that is really working to find a win. The Penguins may have to play without Sidney Crosby who left practice on Friday still feeling the effects of an unspecified injury incurred over a week ago.