By Josh Yohe, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and team Chara kneels on the ice with Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and team Alfredsson during the 2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition at Scotiabank Place on January 28, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Penguins endured quite a rollercoaster ride during the first half of the season. There was a four-game winning streak, which was followed by a six-game losing streak, which was followed by the team's current seven-game winning streak.
There was The Return.
Then came the news release that changed everything, when the Penguins announced Dec. 7 that Sidney Crosby's concussion symptoms had returned.
There were plenty of disappointments, countless injuries and a brief stint removed from the playoff picture.
Evgeni Malkin reminded everyone that he is a superstar, and James Neal became one.
Kris Letang won a game 20 minutes after sustaining a concussion. Crosby may have played eight games without knowing his neck had recently been broken.
The first half of this season was truly unlike any other. Here are some grades for the Penguins, who begin the unofficial second half of their season Tuesday night at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Evgeni Malkin, A+: Completely recovered from ACL and MCL surgery last season, Malkin is the game's greatest player and has carried the Penguins this season. He is on pace to land his first Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
James Neal, A+: Has evolved into a legitimate star, and isn't just a great goal scorer. Neal plays a well-rounded game that blends perfectly with Dan Bylsma's system.
Jordan Staal, A: Before he was injured, was on pace for 35 goals. His game has evolved. The Penguins won't last long in playoffs without a healthy Staal.
Chris Kunitz, A: The Penguins' most steady performer. Plays well with stars, terrific on the power play.
Pascal Dupuis, B+: Scoring touch not always consistent, but has enjoyed an excellent season. Invaluable two-way player.
Steve Sullivan, B-: Hasn't been great in five-on-five situations, but is steadying influence on power play.
Richard Park, C+: When healthy, has scored a couple of big goals. Perfectly solid fourth-line center.
Joe Vitale, C: Plays hard, physical game. Needs to produce a bit more offense.
Matt Cooke, C: Great start, and deserves credit for cleaning up game. But hasn't scored a goal in 19 games.
Craig Adams, C: Never going to produce much offensively, but penalty killing remains elite.
Arron Asham, C: Handled enforcer role well, just can't stay healthy. Usually produces in playoffs.
Tyler Kennedy, D: Not close to last season's production or level of play.
Eric Tangradi, D: Hasn't been given chance to play on top lines, nor has he done anything to warrant such an opportunity.
Sidney Crosby, Incomplete: Producing 12 points in eight games speaks for itself. So does the fact that Crosby only played in eight games. His health will likely determine how the Eastern Conference playoffs unfold.
Dustin Jeffrey, Incomplete: Shows great potential.
Steve MacIntyre, Incomplete: Hard to grade a fighter who no one will fight.
Kris Letang, A: One of the NHL's five best defensemen; he was sorely missed during seven-week absence.
Matt Niskanen, A-: Along with Neal, the team's most improved player. Strong all-around game.
Deryk Engelland, A-: Rarely makes mistakes. Physical. Knows his limitations. Solid as a rock.
Simon Despres, A-: No reason to think he won't be a very good NHL defenseman.
Brooks Orpik, B: Not having his best season, but has been very good during past month. Remains indisputable voice of team.
Ben Lovejoy, B-: Full body of work pretty good. When he does have a bad game, it's noticeable.
Paul Martin, C-: Improved lately, but needs to be way better.
Zbynek Michalek, C-: See Paul Martin.
Marc-Andre Fleury, A: No question he is one of the NHL's five best goaltenders.
Brent Johnson, C-: Needs to be much better in second half. Fleury will need a break soon.
Dan Bylsma, A: Has fixed power play impressively and again showcased ability to keep team competitive despite injuries to so many stars.