With 41 games in the bag, Pittsburgh’s 2013-14 season has officially hit the halfway point. Currently the Penguins are sitting atop the new Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference with a 29-11-1 record for 59 points. Their 29 wins are the most the team has ever posted through 41 games of a full season.
Pittsburgh will open its second half of the year with a New Year’s Eve matinee matchup with the New Jersey Devils at 1 p.m. Before the puck (and the ball) drop, though, let’s look at 11 takeaways from the Penguins’ first 41 contests.
There’s no denying that the biggest headline from the first half of the year for Pittsburgh is its mammoth injury list. Through 41 games the Pens have totaled an NHL-leading 227 man-games lost to injury – including some marquee names in Tomas Vokoun, James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, Beau Bennett and basically the entire defensive unit (more on that later).
Including two suspensions to Neal and Deryk Engelland, the Pens played a game against the New York Rangers on Dec. 18 with 14 players out of the lineup. In that contest they also had eight players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton suit up (that includes goaltender Jeff Zatkoff even though he was the backup).
While some players have been returning recently, the team suffered another blow after learning that Pascal Dupuis will require surgery on his ACL – which could mean he is done for the year.
Despite it all, Pittsburgh still ended the first half of the year by winning nine of the past 10 games – which included a seven-game winning streak – and 14 of its last 16. The Penguins have built a 14-point lead in the division over second-place Washington.
One testament of the Pens under head coach Dan Bylsma is that his teams persevere under ridiculous injury circumstances. They don’t make excuses. They just win hockey games.
2. DEFENSIVE DEPTH
The Pens have spent the past five seasons stockpiling talent on their blue line. With smart drafting, free agent signings and trades, Pittsburgh has arguably the deepest defensive corps in the NHL.
That theory was tested this season with a wave of injuries hitting the blue line. Pittsburgh had its top-four defensemen all out at once (Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang). To make matters worse, veteran Engelland served a five-game suspension.
The Penguins’ top-pairing became Matt Niskanen and rookie Olli Maatta, while they called on the services of Simon Despres and the very inexperienced Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson. Even with a young blue line, the Pens continue to win games.
Maatta has looked more like a 10-year NHL veteran with his calming demeanor and hockey smarts than a 19-year-old rookie that has played in only 41 career games. Though he has had stretches of play where he has looked his age, Maatta has learned from those situations and bounces back quickly.
Watch below to see Maatta talk about the Penguins' young blue line and his development into an integral part of that group...
3. WBS COACHING DEPTH
One reason the Pens have been able to keep winning games with half their lineup consisting of WBS players is due to the incredible coaching jobs of WBS head coach John Hynes and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine.
As the Pens continued to win games with half of their lineup, Bylsma was asked by the media about coaching the new players. He responded by saying that he didn’t have to do much coaching. The players were so well coached in WBS that once they were in the NHL they jumped right into the fold.
The NHL and AHL Pens use the exact same system. Hynes and Nasreddine have done a superb job of teaching the players in WBS the fundamentals of the system so that once they get to the NHL all they have to do is play.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and WBS head coach John Hynes at Pittsburgh's training camp
With the Pens’ top-four D-men out of the lineup, Niskanen was thrust into the role as veteran leader on the blue line. The 27-year-old defenseman responded with his best and most consistent play of the season.
The coaching staff put its full trust in Niskanen and gave him a lot of responsibility in every situation. In fact, he set new career highs in ice time and twice topped out with over 29 minutes (29:26, Dec. 14 at Detroit; 29:44, Dec. 18 at NYR). Niskanen showed that, given the opportunity, he can be a No. 1 defenseman.
Watch below to see Nis-CANNON in action...
The Pens have an impressive array of firepower on their team. So it’s not surprising that they have the NHL’s best power-play unit, clicking at a clip of 25.7 percent. But what’s impressive is that they’ve been able to sustain such a successful level of play while missing key players like Malkin, Neal, Letang and Martin.
While the power play may steal the headlines, Pittsburgh’s penalty killing has been just as effective. The PK unit ranks second in the NHL with an 87.7 percent rate. In close, tight games special teams can be the difference between winning and losing. For the Penguins, it’s been all winning lately.
Watch below for Pittsburgh's prettiest PPG of the season in a 4-0 win over Washington on Nov. 20...
6. CROSBY IS KING
Sidney Crosby is still the best player in the world. I could back it up with a lot of facts and reasoning, but we already know it’s a universal truth.
Watch below for proof...
Chris Kunitz is often described as the most underrated player in the NHL. But in actuality, he is widely regarded for his play and has gotten much recognition for having another excellent year on the ice.
Kunitz’s 21 goals are only one behind Crosby’s 22 for the team lead. He also places second on the team in points with 42. He’s been an integral part of the NHL’s No. 1 ranked power play by chipping in a team-best 10 man-advantage goals. And when it comes to the little things, such as defensive responsibilities, just take a look at Kunitz’s NHL-best (tied) plus-21 rating.
Kunitz’s play this season has created some buzz of him making Team Canada’s Olympic roster. Whether he makes the team or not, Kunitz has certainly made a strong case for himself and has given Team Canada brass something to think about.
Watch below to see one of those 21 goals Kunitz has scored this half...
8. REAL DEAL
Neal has proven that he is one of the NHL’s deadliest snipers with a quick release and powerful shot. Two years ago he scored a career-high 40 goals in 80 games. Last year during the shortened season he posted 21 goals in 40 games. That’s a pace of one goal in every two games played.
If those numbers aren’t astonishing enough, on the current campaign he’s scored 14 goals in 21 games – meaning he’s scoring at an even higher rate than the past two years. Neal may have missed 20 games already, but he is still currently on pace to eclipse 40 goals.
Watch below to see Neal score a hat trick in Pittsburgh's 5-2 win over Columbus on Dec. 29...
9. GENO-VEMBER TO REMEMBER
Evgeni Malkin has missed the last seven games due to injury and has been sidelined for nine total during the first half of the season. Despite that, he's still tied for eighth in the NHL in scoring with 41 points (9G-32A) in 32 games. As he's played just four games in the month of December, his point total can be attributed to his November to remember.
Malkin finished the month leading all NHL players in both assists (21) and points (25) – with his 21 assists the most he’s recorded in a calendar month and the most any NHL player has amassed since Wayne Gretzky did so with the Los Angeles Kings in January 1996. While Malkin was still scoring goals, his playmaking ability rose to an unprecedented level – helped by longtime linemate Neal's finishing ability.
Watch below to see Malkin "videobomb" his close friend and linemate Neal...
10. SUTTER HOME
Center Brandon Sutter has quietly handled the most difficult task on the team. The longest stretch he’s gone with having the same wingers was five games (Chris Conner and Andrew Ebbett). Throughout the entire year, Sutter has been forced to play with a revolving door of different players. All the while, Sutter has been able to maintain a high level of play at both ends of the ice.
Watch below to witness an impressive effort by Sutter to score his eighth goal of the season and third in three games in a 5-2 win over Minnesota on Dec. 19...
11. GOAL TO TEND
The Penguins biggest question mark entering the season was their goaltending situation, especially after Vokoun was lost indefinitely with a blood clot. The first question was could Jeff Zatkoff be an adequate NHL backup.
Zatkoff had a rocky start, surrendering 10 goals in his first two career games. But everything turned around after that. Zatkoff won his first NHL game with a 19-save shutout at Columbus on Nov. 2. That win would be the first of seven straight wins. In fact, Zatkoff hasn’t lost a game since those first two setbacks and put those questions to rest.
While there are many factors to the Pens’ success in the first half, possibly the biggest has been the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s been the rock on a team that hasn’t had much stability with injuries. And he hasn’t just held the ship afloat; he’s steered it strongly through rough waters. Fleury’s 22 wins are the most in the NHL. His 2.16 goals-against average would be a career best while his .920 save percentage is only a percentage point off (.921 in 2007-08). Fleury is having an MVP-type of season.
Watch below to see Fleury prank ROOT SPORTS' Dan Potash while he interviews Zatkoff...