On a roll
Posted 10:10 AM ET | Comments 46
The Penguins have been playing some lights out hockey over the past couple of weeks. The significant problems that seemed to be plaguing this bunch have started to improve and the results are proof.
Defensive zone coverage: The Penguins defensive zone coverage earlier in the year left much to be desired. An incredible amount of passes were starting to find their way through the prime scoring area. This in turn was leaving our goaltenders out to dry on these occasions. I believe the injuries to the defense corp earlier in the year definitely played a role in this, and a result was giving Goligoski high amounts of ice time (never a good idea IMO). The defense was finally healthy and Bylsma changed up the pairings. I think it was a very good idea to put Orpik with Letang, and Martin with Michalek. Instead of 4 defensemen learning to play with new partners now it is only the two new comers. I also believe each pairing compliments each other well. Martin and Letang are smooth with the puck as well as being able to take care of their own end, Orpik and Michalek are defensive specialists that are able to spring the forwards with good passing. Derek Engelland has done a nice job filling the 6th defense spot on most nights. His fighting dynamic may also make Godard expendable, allowing the Pens to get more cap space in the future.
Goaltending: Well what else is there to say about it? Fleury was as bad as an NHL goalie could be to start the year and Johnson professionally took the reigns and kept the Pens afloat while Fleury figured it out. Fleury has definitely figured out whatever problems were plaguing him and has turned in 11 quality starts in a row. Seems that Fleury has regained his swagger from the Cup runs and that is a very good sign for him. I also think it is no coincidence that Fleury's play picked up about the time that the defense corp was healthy and the pairings were changed as stated above. It has been a perfect storm which has resulted in the winning streak the Pens are on.
Special teams: The power play along with goaltending were reasons that the Penguins were struggling about a month ago. However, the Penguins even with bad goaltending from Fleury were still finding themselves in close game situations with the power play. Game after game they were unable to cash in, let alone have any quality zone time. The x's and o's were a complete disaster and had zero chance of success. More importantly however was the fact that they were not running their PP through Crosby, Malkin, or even Letang, but Alex Goligoski. I dont think it is any surprise that when smooth Paul Martin took over for Goligoski that the Pens PP has started to pot a few goals. Goligoski on the surface looks like he is tailor made for the role with his good skating and ability to skate with the puck, however his rock hands when receiving passes and his low hockey IQ made for a sure PP killer. Every time it took him an extra second to corral a tape to tape pass it allowed the penalty killers reset and killed any progress the PP had made with getting the penalty killers to over commit for better passing lanes. With Martin on the point things seem to be more controlled and less of a cluster. He has been a calming presence and I believe has put the other players at ease to where they arent pressing as much.
As much as the PP has had it's struggles and mild resurrection, the penalty kill is #1 in the league right now even without Jordan Staal, you know the Selke Trophy finalist from last year. This unit has done an absolutely fantastic job and is proof that Shero was making a very smart investment by bringing in the defensemen that he did in the off season. By proving that his unit can be this successful without Staal, it may set the table for Staal to receive more power play time, as Bylsma can trust the other killers with the responsibility.
Forwards: Sidney Crosby believe it or not may be playing the best hockey of his young and distinguished career right now. He is leading the league in points ahead of an extremely talented Steven Stamkos. This is extremely impressive to me because Martin St. Louis is an elite player IMO and his duo with Stamkos is nearly unstoppable. Kunitz and Dupuis are reaping the benefits of this high caliber play, however they may be the reason for it. It seems as though instead of forcing plays through Crosby like in the past these two forwards are starting to create for themselves and setting up nice plays. The Kunitz curl and drag move on a 2 on 1 in a recent game that led to a Crosby goal is a prime example.
However our other 8.7 M/yr man is not really having the season that most Pens fans thought he would have (I drafted him in first round). #71 has shown some flashes of his Conn Smyth abilities this year but they have been few and far between. He has lacked his "gallop" in far too many games this year. Last year was not a banner year for Malkin either but one has to wonder if Gonchar's departure had more of an off ice effect on Malkin than an on ice effect to the Pens. If you look at the Penguins roster it is extremely North American (my preference). There are only two Europeans on the roster currently, Malkin and Michalek. Could this be tough on a young player like Malkin who has not exactly mastered the English language (he has come a long way from when he first came)? I also believe that Malkin will not make for a good winger. The opportunities to get the puck with space are just more frequent when he is playing center and playing down low in the Pens zone. He did not figure out how to find that time and space while playing wing. As we all know it is important to get him moving with time and space. This creates an interesting situation when Staal gets back as everybody assumed he would play wing with Staal, Im not so sure that will get the most out of Malkin.
Mark Letestu has been a bright spot in my opinion. While his scoring pace from earlier in the year has cooled significantly he is still making all the simple plays that contribute to winning hockey. He has proven himself as an NHL player and will be a useful player for the Penguins for the immediate and near future. He has centered what has been an extremely impressive third line with Connor and Kennedy.
Mike Comrie was an extremelly smart risk/reward situation, but that doesnt mean it is immune against failing, which it has. I have never seen an NHL player that fights so weakly in the corners. Even when he has the puck with time he is not making plays. Time for Comrie to start counting his family's furniture fortune as well as his wife's and put this hockey thing on the back burner. The play that was the nail in the coffin for me was the Buffalo game which I attended. Long story short, Comrie ices puck towards the end of his line's shift. The Pens win the faceoff and start the breakout. Puck moves up to Comrie at the blue line he starts to skate to the red line as the Buffalo defensemen steps up near the red line. Mind you this defensemen's body language was that of a poke check and not an open ice explosion. Comrie chickened out and iced the puck again instead of taking the potential hit to make the play. Bylsma is forced into taking a timeout in the middle of the second period which turned out to be a 1-0 win for the Pens. In such a close game should be really be wasting timeouts because somebody is not willing to sacrifice to make plays for their teammates? To me he is the opposite of how the Penguins play and how they won their championship.
Lastly, Jordan Staal: How great is it knowing that the Penguins are going to be getting the Selke trophy candidate back later this month? The Penguins have been on a roll without him and that is a great sign. Staal is the glue that holds the Penguins forward depth together IMO. Whether he is centering the second or third line when he gets back he is going to make the forward unit that much stronger. I for one am excited for this team's potential when Gronk returns.
All signs are pointing to what should be a very solid playoff run this year after what was a disappointing finish to last season. Hope I didnt bore you all too much.