By Chris Bradford
Beaver County Times
January 8, 2012
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck past Petr Sykora #15 of the New Jersey Devils during the first period of the NHL game at Consol Energy Center on January 7, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- A season that began with Prince of Wales wishes and Stanley Cup dreams has reached its midpoint. And needless to say such lofty expectations have had to be tempered a bit.
Because of a bevy of injuries -- most notably concussions to the Penguins' best two players at their respective positions, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang -- the Penguins, at least as currently constructed, rate little better than middle-of-the-pack in a crowded Eastern Conference field.
That said, the Penguins are still formidable and, despite their recent slide, should qualify for the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Of course, if Jordan Staal (knee) joins Crosby and Letang on the long-term injured list, even that may be in jeopardy.
Following Saturday night's 3-1 loss the New Jersey Devils, the Penguins are on track for a 93-point season. While that might not equal the 106-point campaign they put up a season ago -- when they missed Crosby, Malkin and Staal for more than a 120 games combined -- the Penguins will surely take it given the injury situation.
Times hockey writer Chris Bradford give you the five best and five worst of the first half of the Penguins' season.
If the Penguins are to make a lengthy playoff run without Crosby -- which isn't improbable -- they will need Malkin to dominate. That has been something the Russian has done sporadically this season. Still, this is easily Malkin's best campaign since his back-to-back Hart Trophy finalist seasons from 2007-09. In the first 11 games Crosby has missed after his re-occurrence of concussion symptoms, Malkin has 20 points (14 assists). Malkin needs to realize the Penguins will only go as far he takes them.
THE NEAL DEAL
When the Penguins acquired James Neal from Dallas, he was supposed to team with Sidney Crosby and presumably score 35-40 goals. Well, Neal has yet to play with the best player in the game but the projections of a big goal-scoring campaign are still holding true. He's the fourth-leading scorer in the NHL and is on pace for 44. Neal trails only superstars Steven Stamkos, Marian Gaborik, Phil Kessel and Jonathan Toews. Pretty good company to keep.
Perhaps the most astonishing statistic of the season, regardless of team or player, is this: Matt Cooke had just 14 penalty minutes through 39 games. That's just one more penalty minute than points for Cooke. After serving a 17-game suspesnion last season (including the playoffs), Cooke has cleaned up his act while providing his usual amount of offense, leadership and is a mainstay on one of the league's top penalty killing units.
POWER'S BACK ON
OK, the second-most astonishing statistic of the season is this: The Penguins' power play is ranked a respectable eighth in the league at 19.2 percent. Granted, the Penguins have coughed up shorthanded goals the past two games, but it's a far cry better than it's been in recent seasons. A subject of ridicule in the past, the power play went a sickly 15.6 last season, 17.8 in 2009-10 and 17.22 in the Cup-winning 20089 season.
The answer to a great trivia question: Who did the Penguins acquire along with Marian Hossa on Feb. 26, 2008? Yep, Pascal Dupuis. The underrated Dupuis doesn't look out of place whether he's playing on the top line or the fourth. In his 10th season, the 32-year-old is enjoying his finest offensive season. He's on pace for career highs in goals, assists and points and is fourth on the Penguins in scoring.
For the record, GM Ray Shero has stated that the Penguins' plan is to re-sign Sidney Crosby, whose contract expires at the end of next season. Given how much No. 87 means to the league and to the organization (read: everything), well, let's just say that a lengthy, league-maximum salary is in order. Or is it was in order? Given Crosby's tenuous health and the harsh realities of the salary cap, the captain's contract -- to say nothing of James Neal's -- will be one of the more interesting developments of the second half and the off-season.
THE BIGGER THEY ARE ...
To be fair, the Penguins do have wins against quality opponents this season. Among their 21 victories, they've beaten Vancouver, Chicago, Florida and Minnesota (Did we mention Vancouver and Chicago?). However, the Penguins' combined record against Eastern Conference powers Boston, Philadelphia and New York Rangers is a disconcerting 0-5. That could be a very bad omen.
THE BIG HURT
It hasn't been just Crosby and Letang injured and it hasn't been just concussions that have beset the Penguins in the first half. Entering Saturday, the Penguins have lost 205 man games. Zbynek Michalek, Richard Park, Tyler Kennedy, Brooks Orpik, Dustin Jeffrey and Ben Lovejoy have missed significant time with injuries ranging from knees to wrists.
The Penguins were supposed to boast one of the top defense corps in the league. It hasn't worked out quite that well. In fact, they have no better than the third-best cast of blueliners in the Atlantic Division behind the Rangers and Flyers, who, not coincidently, lead the Penguins in the standings. To be fair, missing four defensemen -- Letang, Paul Martin, Michalek and Lovejoy - for extended periods can do that.
PAULIE, AW, NUTS
Whenever the much-maligned defenseman is discussed the numbers brought up are nine and five. That's nine as in minus-9, his plus/minus rating, and five as in $5 million, his annual salary. In eight NHL seasons, Martin has been a minus player just once (minus-9 in 2006-07 with New Jersey). He's on pace for a 23-point season, his lowest output in a season of 70 games or more. For those reasons, Martin is joining the likes of Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, Kevin Hatcher, Sergei Zubov as a convenient whipping boy for fans.