Just How Good Are the Pittsburgh Penguins?
By Rich Miller (@pensbender)
They’re 7-1 and sitting comfortably atop the Metropolitan Division, but how excited should fans be for this Penguins team?
There are reasons to believe this team is already on the cusp of being the best in hockey; there are also some question marks regarding the sustainability of their success.
Let’s start by pointing out the painfully obvious. The Metropolitan is a very bad division. Many had already presumed that the Penguins would ultimately win this division, even before the Rangers and Capitals got off to their unexpectedly bad starts. Excluding Pittsburgh, the division has a combined record of 17-31-8. That’s bad.
The Penguins schedule has also been very favorable. The combined record of their opponents is an awful 22-40-9. They’ve played games on back-to-back nights only once, and won’t do so again for another week.
All of this into consideration begins to put perspective on the fact that the Penguins have looked incredible thus far. Giving up six goals in their only loss to the hands of the Florida Panthers has skewed some of their team statistics down, but the most important numbers are still good nonetheless. They are outscoring opponents 31-19. On average they are outshooting opponents 33-27. Their power play is converting 28% of the time. Figure in that they are also third in the league with 139 blocked shots, have the fourth lowest giveaway number of 46, and the fourth best faceoff percentage of 54.6 – it’s fairly easy to see why they are 7-1.
For individual efforts, look no further than captain Sidney Crosby. The NHL’s second star of the week and current scoring leader is averaging more than two points per game, something that hasn’t been done for an entire season since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, and is riding a season-long eight game points streak – the most productive start to a season in his career. The best part? Crosby had a career PDO (on ice shooting percentage added to save percentage) of 1034 entering this season. His current number of 1009 suggests we haven’t even seen Crosby’s best yet.
The Pens have also been leaning on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The netminder is 7-0 and has rebounded nicely from last season’s playoff disaster. I’ve touched on some of the reasons to believe this turnaround could be permanent. His 1.84 GAA and .930 save percentage are among the league leaders for regular starters.
The numbers don’t lie. All indications are that this is a very good team, but are the numbers merely a reflection of the below average level of competition? This early in the season, perhaps it’s not about how many games they have won, but more importantly how they are winning them. A new wrinkle to the approach this season, while leading they’re closing teams out in the third period by switching to the 1-3-1 trap and leftwing lock - making it more difficult to carry the puck through the neutral zone. When trailing, the stars are stepping up exactly as needed.
After losing that first game of the season to Florida, the very next night they had to overcome a 3-2 deficit entering the third period on the road in Tampa. In that third period, Crosby notched two goals and an assist, the Pens outshot the Lightning 8-2 and ultimately won the game 5-4.
In what was considered to be their first real test of the season this past Saturday at home against Vancouver, the Pens entered the third being outshot 28-13, but were still tied at two on the scoreboard thanks to marvelous goaltending from Fleury. They won the shot contest 12-9 in the third, and despite going down 3-2 halfway through the period, battled back to get the game to overtime and eventually won in a shootout thanks to the lone goal from Evgeni Malkin.
They’ve also been playing shorthanded. The absence of injured wingers James Neal and Beau Bennett has meant a revolving door of linemates on the second line for center Malkin. Despite the combinations, Malkin has had a point on every single goal scored while he’s been on the ice at 5 on 5. Bennett has been skating in practice, but there is still no timetable regarding his or Neal’s return. Defenseman Kris Letang has been out also, but his loss has led to increased playing time for 19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta, who apparently has earned a spot on the team beyond his nine day tryout period.
It’s difficult and perhaps way too early to determine exactly how good this team is. One thing is certain however, the tests will be getting much more difficult for the Penguins very soon. Pittsburgh has 15 games in the month of November – nine of which are on the road. With only seven games against the Metropolitan Division, the combined record of their November opponents is 57-56-7. They will also have three back-to-back games next month, meaning backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff (0-1) will be seeing some time in net.
If this team can carry it’s performance through the month of November we will have reason to believe it is every bit as good as the numbers are indicating it is.