Nearly halfway into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to do what has historically been difficult for a team coming off from a Stanley Cup win…turn the page. With the summer parade and hometown Cup celebrations with friends, families, and mentors behind them, the Penguins have quickly regrouped to start the new season focused on one thing…winning again. So far, it has paid off. With 38 games behind them, the Penguins find themselves just 1 point out of the league lead despite experiencing a challenging rash of early season injuries to much of their offensive and most of their defensive lines.
Credit the young coach/hockey veteran, Dan Bylsma, and his staff for getting the young minds back on the right page from day one and managing through the early adversity of this season’s injuries. Credit the seemingly veteran Captain, Sidney Crosby, for his burning and infectious desire to “do it again”, and not be content with accomplishments of the past. Credit the Penguins’ young players and veterans alike for sharing their Captain’s desire, for not forgetting what it takes to win, and for not letting the glory of last season’s Cup win spill over into an attitude of entitlement this season. And lastly, credit the depth of the organization and the AHL players for their energy, skills, and ability to step up into the big league and fit seamlessly into the Penguins’ system. The Penguins have indeed assembled a winning organization from top to bottom, and despite the commercial cheesiness of the “Defy Ordinary” marketing campaign, the tagline has very aptly and succinctly defined the identity that the Penguins players themselves seem to have embraced. This is no ordinary hockey organization.
Quickly dispelling the thoughts of a Cup hangover in Pittsburgh, the Penguins jumped out to an impressive 11-3-0 record in October, outscoring their opponents 48-31-0. That included 4 overtime shootout wins, putting an exclamation point on their ability to find ways to win games and showcasing Marc-Andre Fleury’s and Brent Johnson’s ability to close the door. November brought a cascade of injuries that slowed the Penguins down, as they fought through a 4-game losing streak and finished the month 8-6-0, being outscored 46-44. During the month, the Penguins saw no less than 65 man-games lost due to injury, including 5 of their 6 regular defensive starters. The maelstrom of 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). So far during the month of December, the Penguins have managed to return to health and have recorded a 7-2-1 record by outscoring their opponents 32-19 as they head into tonight’s game against the Maple Leafs.
Despite their winning record and success at overcoming injuries in the first half of the season, the Penguins are noticeably lacking in one area of their game, proving that not quite everything has “defied ordinary”. In fact the Penguins’ powerplay, the least effective in the league at just 15%, has downright defied belief. There are few explanations to account for this utter lack of performance coming from a team that possesses the firepower of the Penguins. However, one might recall that the Penguins struggled on the powerplay in the first half of last season as well, and recovered quite nicely down the stretch. At least during the first half of last season they had a viable excuse with Sergei Gonchar, the team’s most effective powerplay Quarterback, out of the lineup. There has been no such easy excuse this season. Recent changes by the coaching staff on the Penguins’ powerplay seem to offer a glimpse of hope as they move forward, however. Most noticeable is the move of Crosby and Malkin to opposite sides of the ice. This combination has opened up the ice, provided more options and less predictability, and seems to be yielding some results. Now if they can just get some consistent traffic in front of the net, they might just become the powerplay juggernaut that they have the potential to be.
It appears that the Penguins’ biggest foes in the Eastern Conference as we near the halfway point are the uber defensively minded New Jersey Devils and the offensively laden Washington Capitals. The defensively stingey Buffalo Sabres also bear watching, as do the Boston Bruins (if the Bruins can ever find a way to regain their offensive punch). What remains to be seen is how all of these teams (including the Penguins) will perform in the second half of the season, especially given the upcoming Olympic break. Will the Olympics prove to be too big of a distraction to maintain the momentum of the league’s current leaders? What about injuries, and how will that affect the road ahead? Can the Penguins maintain the pace they have been on given their two consecutive back-to-back short off-seasons? How will the trade deadline change the landscape of the current challengers?
The only thing certain at this point is that the Penguins have effectively turned the page from last season’s triumph and have successfully avoided the pitfalls of a Stanley Cup hangover. The rest lies in the hands of the Hockey Gods.