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Pens may actually be better than last year

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Quick question: If the Penguins make the playoffs, will the mayor change his name to Luke Jordanstahl?

Here's a better question, raised by USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen during our conversation Saturday: Is this Penguins team better than last year's at the same point of the season?

At first, the notion might seem preposterous — especially if you put too much stock into Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the first time in 13 games the Penguins did not record a point.

How could any team lose one of the best all-around players in the world (Marian Hossa), plus a key team leader and power-play presence (Ryan Malone) and be better?

Break it down, though, and you realize it's a legitimate question.

Several reasons:

• The Penguin's top two players have expanded their games and are showing they can play at peak level concurrently.

At various times in their careers, it seemed that when either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin took a step forward, the other receded, just a bit, into the shadows. Lately, they seem intent on proving that two suns can, in fact, burn to maximum brightness in the same universe.

They also can combine for zero shots, as they did yesterday. But that was only the second time that's happened, and as Flyers forward Mike Richards put it, "They still had their opportunities."

• Crosby is healthier than he was late last season. And remember this: If he hadn't missed five games, he and Malkin would be waging a titanic, in-team battle for the scoring title, separated by only a few points.

• The third and fourth lines are better. Matt Cooke is a prime example why. He has more points (27) than Jarkko Ruutu's ever had in a season and is every bit as abrasive.

• The team's other under-25 players, besides Malkin and Crosby, are flourishing. That would include center Jordan Staal, defenseman Kris Letang, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and winger Tyler Kennedy. Staal, Letang and Kennedy (who had no goals in last year's playoffs) have benefited greatly from coach Dan Bylsma's aggressive, skating-based system.

• The power play alignment actually makes sense lately, with Malkin freed from left-point exile. (Next step: Dump the puck when a team such as the Flyers puts four men across the blue line).

• The top line might be as good or better, even without Hossa. Crosby now has two capable scorers/well-rounded players on his wings in Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

Here's the thing: The Penguins could actually be better than last season and not go as far because the playoff field will be radically improved. Last year's field was banged up and not all that special in the first place, as compared to a potential top three of Bruins, Capitals and Devils this year, plus lower-bracket teams that are rolling at the right time.

None of which is to minimize the losses of Hossa and Malone. Hossa gave the Penguins a third player who could win a game by himself. Malone had become an inspirational force.

Oh, yeah, and this year's team still has to make the playoffs .

Know what, though?

I like the Penguins' chances of getting through the East again, which is something only a fool would have said a month ago.

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