Assessing the Penguins' direction early on
Assessing the Penguins' contender status after 25 games has proven a foolish act for this beat reporter the past three seasons because their starts, even if strong, as was the case last season, haven't proven a great indicator of what looms in months ahead.
Consider their upstart 2006-07 campaign. The Penguins were 11-10-4 and hardly on anybody's Stanley Cup playoff radar. They went 14-7-4 over their next 25 contests and finished 47-24-11 overall, with 105 points that remain a high-water mark in the Sidney Crosby Era.
The next season the Penguins went 11-12-2 through 25 games, and hockey pundits had their season pegged as a so-called fallback year. However, they were 28-18-4 on Jan. 29, despite being almost two full months into a stretch without goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and at the start of several weeks missed by captain Sidney Crosby. A month later general manager Ray Shero felt so good about his club that he swung deals for defenseman Hal Gill, winger Pascal Dupuis and some guy named Marian Hossa — and the Penguins cruised to a division title and into the Final, falling only two wins short of the Cup.
This is the point when fans of the Penguins could remind this beat reporter that their favorite club opened last season at 15-6-4 through 25 games, and last season ended with the Cup being paraded around Pittsburgh. Duh!
Fair enough; but keep in mind the Penguins went 9-15-1 over their next 25 games after that sizzling start — part of a 13-20-2 stretch from Dec. 3-Feb. 14 that cost head coach Michel Therrien his job. Also, remember the Penguins needed an 18-3-4 finish to claim a playoff spot by six points. Had they gone, say, 14-6-5 over their final 25 games - still a respectable finish given a state of disarray that necessitated a coaching change and several roster moves — they would have missed the playoffs.
The point is that at no point over the last three seasons has the Penguins' standing after completing 30 percent of their schedule forecast what might need to happen for the final 40 percent to play out with them in the big tournament that really matters.
So of course, this beat reporter has a 25-game assessment of the Penguins to offer, anyway ...
Record: 17-8-0, 34 points
A fifth-best .680 point percentage rated third in East and second in division. However, the Penguins will only gain guaranteed home-ice advantage through at least two rounds by finishing either first or second in the conference; and they are 18-4 the last two postseasons at Mellon Arena. Of potential concern regarding a top seed through the conference playoffs: The Penguins were one of only two teams without an overtime point after claiming nine extra points last season. Extra points will mean the difference between owning the last change in Game 7s.
Offense: 2.92 goals; 32.1 shots
The Penguins' rank of 13th in average goals appeared puzzling given their 3.64 per-game average in 25 games under Blysma last season. Atlanta paced the league at 3.43 average goals through Wednesday, but nobody is calling for a Final that includes the Thrashers. Of the top five scoring teams, four were widely viewed as legitimate Cup contenders: Washington (3.40), Philadelphia (3.32), San Jose (3.27) and Chicago (3.26). Now, before anybody accuses the Penguins of defining ordinary on offense, pay attention to this noteworthy statistic: With center Evgeni Malkin in the lineup they had averaged 3.27 goals, compared to 1.43 in seven games he missed with a right shoulder injury. Malkin hadn't missed a game in almost three full seasons before his injury last month. The safe bet is that he continues to play, and that Malkin (1.26) and Crosby (1.36) finish with point totals that more resemble their career per-game averages entering this season, and that the Penguins pick up the scoring pace over the next few months. Malkin's value to the Penguins: Without him their shots average was 28.1, which would rate 26th.
Goaltending success: 2.76 goals against; 27.1 shots against
Judging the Penguins' goaltending and defense may serve no purpose given they played 12 of 25 games without their best defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, whose left wrist was broken Oct. 20. The Penguins went 6-6-0 in those contests, with two shootout victories. Had they only missed Gonchar, perhaps the Penguins would have been able to keep up their statistically strong defensive performances through the first three weeks, but his injury started a three-week stretch in which five regular defensemen were lost to injury. Hurt most were goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson — and Fleury's brilliant start (8-1-0, 1.96 GAA, .926 SV percentage) turned into a mid-level mark (14-7-0, 2.51 GAA, .904 SV percentage). Overall, the Penguins rated 11th in goals against despite a fourth-best shots against ranking. However, they posted a 2.07 GAA in nine games with the regular defense corps in tact, and in 19 games with at least full healthy regular defensemen in the lineup they had allowed an average of 2.35 goals - a total that would have placed them fourth overall. Consider those stats combined with their offensive prowess with Malkin playing as evidence that, when at full health, the Penguins are as complete a club as any in the NHL.
Special teams: 14.4 percent PP; 83.2 percent PK
A startlingly struggling power-play attack had produced hundreds of more emails from arm-chair coaches than goals (15 in 107 chances). Perhaps the best hope for optimism is acknowledging that Gonchar really does mean everything to the Penguins' advantage, even though they deploy on a top power-play unit containing two former scoring champions in Malkin and Crosby. Gonchar had played in 50 of 107 games the past two seasons. The Penguins were 17.9 percent on the power play (31 for 173); without him they were 14.7 percent (43 for 292). This is one of those occasions in which the numbers don't lie — though notable is that the Penguins had never failed to click at less than 20 percent on the power play in any season with Gonchar, Malkin and Crosby sharing time on a top unit before the last two years. As for the penalty kill; the Penguins denied opponents to score on all but 14 power plays in 25 games under Blysma last season, clicking at 87.2 percent. They were slightly below that impressive efficiency rate, but they also averaged 5.32 penalties compared to 4.36 under Bylsma last season - and playing 48 percent of the scheduled with a depleted defense corps makes their kill rate completely acceptable.