NHL PLAYOFFS 2013: Pittsburgh Penguins – Loading for bear…
As we get closer to the playoffs, IceNationUK will be taking a look at each team’s roster as they clinch a spot in the postseason.
In this edition, we’ll look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins had a mediocre start to the season, despite the fact that superstar forward Sidney Crosby was finally back and fully healthy, going 4-3-0 in January and not winning any home games that month. However, come February they began to find their groove, winning 4 in a row, highlighted by Chris Kunitz’ 4 goal game. As always, Matt Cooke managed to cause controversy by lacerating Erik Karlsson’s (Ottawa Senators) left achilles with his skate, though how intentional it was is up for debate.
Crosby’s fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin crashed badly into the boards against Florida on February 22nd, and missed 4 games with a concussion. In March, he also suffered an upper body injury that caused him to miss 9 more games, resulting in the loss of one of the best forwards in the game yet again for the Penguins. Star defenceman Kris Letang, well on his way to a Norris Trophy-calibre season with 29 points in 29 games and +12, has unfortunately missed 12 games so far this season with various lower body injuries. Crosby himself then suffered a horrible injury when he found himself on the receiving end of a slap shot by team-mate Brooks Orpik that broke his jaw and required surgery at the end of March, and is out indefinitely.
The reason I mention all these injuries to their star players, is that the Penguins remarkably kept rolling along. Since that middling start, the Pens went 9-5-0 in February and an incredible 15-0-0 in March. They are currently 3-2-0 in April, and secured the division title just a couple of days ago. This just goes to show the remarkable depth this team has, and how well coached they are – they don’t simply rely on their superstars to get them where they need to go.
In the midst of all this, the Penguins were the main team in the NHL to go all out in terms of acquiring players they believed would give them a great chance at the Cup this year. Obviously last summer they traded Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter (with other parts involved), but they made even more of a splash in the days leading up to the trade deadline. They picked up depth defenceman Doug Murray from San Jose, traded for Jussi Jokinen from Carolina, got Brenden Morrow from Dallas, and of course they were the big winners in the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes, acquiring him from Calgary for just a 1st round pick and a couple of average prospects. These moves give the Pens some great depth, though we’ll see how it all works out.
2012/13 Season Team Stats (to date):
41 Games – 31 Wins – 10 Losses – 0 OT Losses – 62 Points
Goals For = 138
Goals Against = 101
Goal Differential = +37
Home Record = 16-5-0
Away Record = 15-5-0
CHRIS KUNITZ – EVGENI MALKIN – JAROME IGINLA
BRENDEN MORROW – JUSSI JOKINEN – PASCAL DUPUIS
MATT COOKE – BRANDON SUTTER – TYLER KENNEDY
TANNER GLASS – CRAIG ADAMS – BEAU BENNETT
BROOKS ORPIK – KRIS LETANG
DOUG MURRAY – MATT NISKANEN
MARK EATON – DERYK ENGELLAND
EXTRA: ROBERT BORTUZZO, SIMON DESPRES, JOE VITALE, DUSTIN JEFFREY
INJURED: SIDNEY CROSBY (C), JAMES NEAL (LW), PAUL MARTIN (D)
Everybody knows that Pittsburgh has two of the best players on the planet on their team. Crosby and Malkin are both former winners of Hart Trophies, Art Ross Trophies, Ted Lindsay/Lester Pearson Awards, Crosby has a Richard Trophy and Malkin the Conn Smythe. They are phenomenal players whom no-one can argue their credentials. They are the focal point of the team and the driving force.
The amazing thing is, despite these two phenomenal players and their respective high salaries, GM Ray Shero has managed to build a deep and talented roster consisting of players who were either traded for, were signed as free agents or patiently developed through their system. They are almost the perfect example of a rebuild-gone-right.
The aforementioned Crosby is as good as he’s ever been this season, leading the league in scoring and reaching his 600th career point in little over 400 games, although obviously the injury worry is constantly there and who knows when he’ll be back from his current broken jaw. Malkin is in much the same boat, having a good (though not great, for him) season but with similar injury concerns. When healthy the team will likely go as far as these two can take them.
The team doesn’t lack for star power elsewhere though. James Neal, who disappointed in his first few games as a Pen two years ago, blossomed into a premier goal scorer last season and is on pace for over 20 goals this year in a shortened season. Having a strong goal scorer on the wing is important for great playmakers like Crosby and Malkin, and Neal is exactly that; unfortunately he is also struggling with concussion issues. Also on the wings are Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis; the former is a career 2nd liner and capable secondary scorer, and the latter is a quality two-way forward who can chip in the odd goal. Both are in the midst of career seasons, putting up numbers at a rate that they likely never will again, but there’s no time like the present when your team is clearly making a huge push for a championship.
Iginla is a veteran scorer, past his best days but still a damn good player, whom I wouldn’t be surprised to see up his game in the playoffs. Morrow and Jokinen round out the truly talented players who also deliver solid two-way play. There’s almost no better top grouping of players on one team, except perhaps Chicago or at a stretch, Anaheim.
The bottom 6 forwards are not necessarily a screaming hell of Selke candidates, and the loss of Max Talbot two years ago was a fairly big loss, but Craig Adams is a quality veteran with some penalty killing savvy. Brandon Sutter is a quality 3rd line centre, who might not put up as much offence as Jordan Staal but is pretty much as good defensively. I was surprised to see that Tyler Kennedy doesn’t play any amount of time on the PK, but he’s a fairly reliable 3rd liner who has put in some good playoff performances in the past. Matt Cooke might be a borderline psychopath but say what you want, the guy can actually play hockey, unlike some goons. Beau Bennett has quietly put up a solid rookie half-season, on pace for nearly 40 points in a full 82-game season in just 12 minutes per game.
On defence, the top pairing of Letang and Orpik gives the team two extremely high quality players that can take on anyone in the league. Letang particularly is a Norris Trophy contender, and would possibly be a shoe-in for the award if he hadn’t lost time to injury. Murray’s best days as a competent NHL d-man are behind him, but he is experienced and that’s not a bad thing to have on a club hoping for a deep run; I’m just worried they’ll be playing him in the top 4, which would be a mistake.
Niskanen is a solid player who can contribute in all situations, whilst Eaton and Engelland are fairly reliable veteran hands. Once the team gets Paul Martin back from his wrist injury, the team will be in much stronger shape on the back end, but they are OK as it is.
The issues for the Penguins are in goal. Don’t get me wrong, Fleury has some talent as a goalie, but he is definitely one of the most over-rated in the game. He’s only once had a save percentage above .920 in the NHL, and that was in 35 games (07/08), and has really only ever been average at best, with moments of brilliance scattered around. He’s not a fundamentally bad goalie, don’t get me wrong, but he’s certainly not in my top 15 of goalies-I-want-on-my-team, let alone a top 10 NHL goalie. His playoff performances have been even worse, with the exception of 2008 when the team went to the Cup final for the first time in the Crosby-era. His melt-down in last year’s first round against the Flyers can’t all be lumped on him, that was a lot of bad luck and awful play by Pittsburgh, but it was still pretty horrendous. If Pittsburgh want to get anywhere this year, he has to be average at least.
Tomas Vokoun was one of the most underrated goalies in the league with both Nasville and Florida, but is now in the twilight of his career. As backup to Fleury this year, he’s been adequate, certainly not a weak link but not dominant either, just a perfectly capable backup. He hasn’t played in the playoffs since 2007 with Nashville, but he’s as solid as anyone should Fleury falter again.
STAR PLAYOFF PERFORMER
If healthy, I believe Kris Letang could be the force behind this team in the playoffs. Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Iginla, Dupuis and Kunitz might garner the headlines for goals and such, but Letang has similar qualities to Drew Doughty of LA – a dominant all-situations defenceman who can defend with aplomb against tough competition, and provide incredible offence from the back end whilst being physical. A team who has a player like that will always be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs – think Pronger in Edmonton, Pronger and Niedermayer in Anaheim, Lidstrom in Detroit, Letang and Gonchar in Pittsburgh, Pronger in Philadelphia (noticing a theme here?!), Keith and Seabrook in Chicago, Chara in Boston, and Doughty in LA.
I really want to say the Penguins have what it takes to go all the way, I really do. But almost all their top stars struggled with injury at some point this year and that is a concern. I also don’t trust Fleury to be the goalie to take them all the way – his 2008 performance looks to be a fluke, and the in 2009 they seemed to win in spite of him, as opposed to because of him. Stanley Cup Finals, but not winners.