After 1st third of season, Penguins have look of Cup favorite
The Penguins don't play again until Wednesday, fitting for a club at the first intermission of a truncated NHL season.
Only four clubs had played a third of their games — 16 in this season of only 48 — through Sunday.
Another way of looking at that is that only four clubs had to play a third of their season in 30 days. Of that group, only the Penguins and Dallas Stars had earned at least 50 percent of possible points.
The Penguins' percentage of possible points earned (.688) was fifth overall as of Monday — and their 10 regulation wins were first.
They were top five in average goals and power-play percentage and top 10 in average goals allowed. Only their penalty-kill percentage was outside the top 10, and that rated 14th — not a dire ranking considering the Penguins had been shorthanded more than all but eight clubs.
All in all, the Penguins (11-5-0, 22 points) can feel good about the first period of the short NHL season.
A deeper look at the Penguins:
Rocking the road
Road success is a measure of potential greatness. That is especially true following a postseason that featured road teams going 44-42.
Only two Eastern Conference clubs began Monday with a plus-double digits in goal differential: The Penguins (14) and Tampa Bay (10). The Penguins were one of only 11 clubs overall with an even-or-better goal differential on the road.
Overall, the Penguins, at plus-12, trail only Chicago (plus-16).
The Penguins are 3-1-0 in the buildings of Eastern opponents that held a playoff spot as of Monday, and they are 4-1-0 on the road of Atlantic Division rivals.
Overall defense is better
Consistency in the categories of goals allowed and shots allowed is a must for any legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and the Penguins have fit that description.
Los Angeles rated second and fifth, respectively, last season. The Kings qualified for the playoffs as an eighth seed in the West, but they won the Cup. Once playing in best-of-seven series, the Kings' goaltending and team defense were reliably comparable to their regular-season standard.
The Penguins, conversely, won only two playoff games last postseason when their goaltending was terrible (28 goals surrendered in six games). That was a significant drop-off from the regular season, but even then the Penguins were not in the same hockey rink in terms of average allowed goals and shots.
In 2011-12, the Penguins ranked 17th in average goals allowed compared to fourth in average shots allowed. As of Monday, their 2.38 goals allowed rated eighth NHL and 27.4 shots allowed ranked seventh.
That comparable consistency would serve them well in a playoff series, especially considering they are again a top-scoring team (3.19 goals per game, fifth).
Not cooked at home
Forget the average home record (3-3-0).
The Penguins have played two consecutive games at Consol Energy Center once, and Wednesday marks their first full week in Pittsburgh since NHL training camps opened Jan. 14. There has been no opportunity to generate any momentum at home.
Two losses followed days the Penguins did not practice because of that crammed schedule. They were off Monday and will practice Tuesday before facing the Flyers on Wednesday.
Another loss came against New Jersey — a 2012 Cup finalist and fourth overall in points as of Monday — without top defenseman Kris Letang and a top-four defenseman, Matt Niskanen, in the lineup, which in turn included two rookies (Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo) and an AHL call-up (Dylan Reese). That loss finished a stretch of 11 games in 19 days.
The Penguins were third, ninth and eighth at home the last three seasons, respectively. Their combined record over that span was 79-36-8. This so-so start is likely a blip on the radar.
The MVP has history on his side.
Evgeni Malkin paced the NHL in scoring last season and in 2008-09. In total, he amassed 63 of 85 goals (72.9 percent) and 147 of 222 points (66.2 percent) after the first third of those seasons. His 2007-08 season, which ended with him scoring 47 goals and 106 points, began with 10 goals and 33 points over the first third of that season.
Malkin has a history of finishing with fury when healthy — and Malkin insists he is healthy.
The top-line dominance of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis — a combined 20 goals and 55 points — will steer No. 2 defense pairings towards Malkin and James Neal. That duo combined for 90 goals last season and will benefit greatly if skilled rookie Beau Bennett can provide some stability — and passes — from a left-wing slot that has been a black hole through 16 games.
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