Mark Madden: Penguins haven't figured it out yet
Whatever it was the Penguins didn't have, they still hadn't found as 2017 turned to 2018.
Call it an excuse. Call it a reason. The Penguins had played 213 games over the prior two seasons. Tired physically and fatigued mentally, the Penguins couldn't find traction. Any sign of a turnaround proved a false dawn.
But they're 8-3 in January. For almost 50 minutes of Thursday's home win against Minnesota, the Penguins looked like they often did during their Stanley Cup runs in '17 and '16: They had touch and zip and made a good team look like a bunch of bums, racing to a 6-0 lead.
Then the Penguins allowed three goals in 182 seconds, reminding us that they may not be quite back to peak form.
The citizens debated (and still do) fourth-line right wings, bottom-pair defensemen, line combinations and the need for a No. 3 center. Which exists, but perhaps isn't as excruciating as imagined.
But when the big boys showed up, all that babble became superfluous.
Not that Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin weren't present and accounted for at any point during the season. But with the important games not too far away and no ticket to participate yet punched, the Penguins' holy trinity found another gear and the wins started coming with more frequency.
A team doesn't always go as its best players do. But that's certainly the way to bet.
Crosby, Kessel and Malkin are each well over a point per game. Kessel, perhaps the Penguins' most consistent performer this campaign, is just five points off the NHL scoring lead.
Kessel got gypped out of playing for the U.S. in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He got swindled out of a spot in Sunday's NHL All-Star event. If Kessel wins the scoring title, they probably won't give him the Art Ross Trophy.
Kessel has five goals and 11 assists in January's 11 games. Malkin, consistently looking to create his own shot, has nine goals and seven assists.
But in January, Crosby has been the best of the bunch, back to being the top hockey player in the world. The captain has three goals and 17 assists this month, playing between Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon the way Mario Lemieux did between Rob Brown and Bob Errey.
OK, maybe not quite that good. But you get the idea.
All you have to do to play on Crosby's line is skate fast and execute give-and-go plays. He'd be the first to confirm.
It's simple but electrifying. Witness Crosby's elevation of rookie Simon — doing what Daniel Sprong was supposed to, with three goals in the last two games — and Crosby giving defenseman Brian Dumoulin an empty net to hit in the win over Minnesota.
Stir in a soul-crushing power play that converts a league-best 27.1 percent of the time, and business clearly has picked up.
There are still issues: Goalie Matt Murray has to get back to where he was the past two seasons. Murray has been good but not good enough, which makes him the personification of the Penguins before January.
The same goes for Kris Letang, who hasn't been nearly as bad as his critics yelp but isn't as consistent as the Penguins need.
Jamie Oleksiak has stabilized the defense corps' bottom pair. Ian Cole is better than Matt Hunwick, but coach Mike Sullivan doesn't think so.
Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary must score a bit more but not a lot more.
The penalty kill has morphed from rotten to sublime, executing 36 out of 39 times over the last 14 games. The Penguins' PK ranks seventh in the NHL with a success rate of 82.8 percent.
So, about that third-line center spot …
It won't be an easy deal for general manager Jim Rutherford to make. A prominent employee of an NHL team said that other GMs are tired of the Penguins winning, and most are unlikely to make a trade that helps them.
The latest grist for the mill has Edmonton center Mark Letestu coming to Pittsburgh.
You may remember Letestu. Barely. He played 85 games for the Penguins between 2009-11, scoring 15 times.
Letestu has done OK in Edmonton, scoring 24 goals in 126 games between this season and last. But 14 of those goals have come on the power play, where the Penguins decidedly do not need Letestu beyond (perhaps) the second unit.
Letestu, 32, is small (5-foot-10) and not at all physical. But he has good hockey sense and plays both ends. Letestu is a good right-handed faceoff man, winning almost 53 percent of his draws this season.
Letestu, in the last year of his contract, makes $1.8 million. He's affordable. Edmonton might not ask too much in return.
Letestu probably isn't exactly what's wanted. (For example, a left-handed center would be a better fit for Kessel if Sullivan insists on dividing his star forwards among three lines.) But the Penguins would be better with Letestu centering the third line and Riley Sheahan on the fourth.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).