The first thirteen games reveal the Pittsburgh Penguins sitting on top of the Eastern Conference and the League (8-3-2, 18 points) after a grueling opening schedule without Sidney Crosby and a still somewhat fragile Evgeni Malkin, but there is no panic in this team. They’ve been down this road many times before, and if anything can be said about their situation, the Penguins are showing everyone the value of building a strong team around franchise players, top to bottom, and extending that depth and attitude into their AHL team in Wilkes-Barre.
Enter some new, well, actually, more like familiar faces in Richard Park and Joe Vitale. Park is back for Pens Round II after having played with Mario the first time around, and he has already added depth and dynamics to the forward corps with his ability to play wing or center, tenacious penalty killing, and quality face-off prowess. In the eleven games Park has played so far, he has registered only two games below 50% and seven games ranging from 58.3% to as high as 75% in the face-off circle. Joe Vitale appeared in several games for the Pens last season and continues this season as a regular presence on the ice. He forces notice due to his high octane style of play as he literally gives new meaning to the term “grinder.” When Vitale is on the ice, he’s everywhere, relentless on the puck whether in the corners or in open ice. He begs the rhetorical question: Who’s Max Talbot?
James Neal seems to have overcome the nerves of last season and settled into the kind of player for which he was acquired. Beside Evgeni Malkin with new addition Steve Sullivan, Neal has become an offensive juggernaut, currently second in the league with 9 goals behind Toronto Maple Leaf Phil Kessel who has 10. He clearly looks more relaxed on the ice, and it’s paying dividends even as Malkin continues to struggle in the scoring department.
Matt Cooke is working very hard on the new him, and with the passing of each game, he continues to get stronger without having to resort to questionable and occasionally dangerous tactics. If anything, Matt Cooke is showing his true value as a player 5th on the team with 8 points (4G, 4A) and a very impressive and low 4, yes that’s right, 4 penalty minutes. Teams are testing him, namely the Capitals, the Islanders, and the Canadiens, and so far, he has passed, but the real test will be against chippy teams like Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit.
Jordan Staal came in recovered and recharged, 2nd on the team in goals (6) and 4th in points (9). In the League, he’s 13th in goals. While Staal has always been a decent face-off guy, his biggest weakness has been in the defensive circle, but this season, he has stepped up his play as has Evgeni Malkin who has not been known for winning face-offs on a consistent basis. Both have not only improved, but because of their ability to win pucks in crucial situations, they have been able to pull off excellent chances for the team on set face-off plays. Geno has also improved on his puck handling upon entry into the offensive zone. In the past, he has frustratingly left blind drop passes to no one but the opposing team, which ended in breaks the other way. This season, so far, he has made the effort to give a quick peripheral check before leaving the puck behind, and it ends up with a Penguin and usually a great shot opportunity. That’s more like it.
It was both a treat and a trick to be tantalized by the pre-season play of young Joe Morrow who meshed so well with Kris Letang, only to have him snatched away back to Juniors. However, the return of Mat Niskanen and the enforcing Deryk Engelland has helped to secure the defensive six. It’s been good to see Brooks Orpik back on the ice, and as he continues to improve in his health, he will only get stronger and become the brutal force Pens fans have come to know and love. Kris Letang has clearly stepped out of Sergei Gonchar’s shadow, skating with authority and ranking 5th in the League with 10 assists and 2nd on the team with 11 points. The D-men have the green light to jump up into the play and are disciplined enough between them and the forwards to provide support when one of them takes off deep in the offensive zone.
It really goes without saying, but with the tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson between the pipes on any given night, the Penguins are securely anchored. Currently, Fleury is 6th in the League among netminders at 93.4% save percentage and an impressive 1.86 goals against average, and Johnson has a respectable 90.8% save percentage and a 2.44 goals against average as Fleury’s backup. Like Neal and Letang, Fleury comes into the season grounded and loose but disciplined.
Look, Ma, It’s a Power Play!!
Thank the hockey gods! The Penguins have not only an effective power play to start the season, but a dramatically changed man-advantage. For now, (to be explained in a minute) they are moving the puck crisply, with multi-directional velocity and shots on or at the goal in much more profusion than in seasons past. They have any number of guys who disrupt opposing goalies and a Terminator-type mentality for keeping puck-possession for lengthy periods of time, exhausting penalty-killing units. Geno has looked just as strong and comfortable on the left circle as he he does on the right circle. The remaining question (answering the “for now”) is what will happen when Sid comes back? Sid has a history of slowing the puck down on the power play, particularly when he was positioned on the right circle. If he is put on the goal line, down low (the best position for a player with his skill) to buzz the goalies and stick handle in tight, then this new and improved power play will be further enhanced and even more deadly. Here’s hoping he has bought in to the new power play system and is kept off the right circle.
While it is a long season, there is just a good feeling about this team. The off-season moves and acquisitions as well as the continued addition of more set plays and a much improved power play all make for a formidable foe for any team that finds itself on the ice with the Penguins.