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7 Things From the First Half of the Season

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
The 2014-15 season has officially reached the halfway mark. With 41 games down, the Penguins have a 25-10-6 record and sit second in the Metro Division – one point behind the NY Islanders. Here’s a cheat sheet looking back at the seven most notable things about the first half of the season.

The Pens ushered in a new era for the team with a change at the top. General manager Jim Rutherford was hired in the summer to return the Pens to the Promised Land.

Rutherford brought in a whole new coaching staff, headed by Mike Johnston. The former Portland (Western Hockey League) bench boss brought a new philosophy and style to the team. Johnston brought aboard assistants Gary Agnew and Rick Tocchet, and retained goaltender coach Mike Bales, to help him lead the club.

Under Johnston, the Pens have implemented an aggressive, puck-possession style of team. The Pens play together as a tight, five-man unit in all three zones, concentrating on short passes and possession. In the defensive zone, the players collapse more to the net to provide protection and outlets. On the rush, defensemen join – and sometimes lead – to provide another pass option and to create odd-man situations. In the offensive zone, crashing the net has been a point of emphasis.

Gist: The new brand of hockey looks much different than the system run in previous years in some ways; in others it’s similar. The Pens seemed to be getting more and more comfortable with each game. However, they sometimes revert back to old habits at certain times. That’s to be expected considering they’ve only been using the new system for half of a season. Also, injuries (more on that later) have derailed their chance to build a cohesive, consistent lineup.

Over the offseason, the Penguins experienced the most roster upheaval in the last 10 years. Longtime leader Brooks Orpik highlighted a slew of players that left the team either via trade or free agency. Also exiting were James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Jussi Jokinen, Deryk Engelland, Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale to name a few.

The Penguins changed the dynamic of their team with the acquisitions of Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, Christian Ehrhoff, Nick Spaling and, most recently, David Perron.

Gist: The Pens made an effort to change the identity of their team. GM Rutherford wanted a grittier, more physical team. Rutherford’s personnel moves have accomplished that goal. Downie is a player that lives on the edge – with stints over the line. He’s added a sense of craziness and agitation that the Pens have been missing. Hornqvist and Perron are gritty players that have great hands and skill. Comeau and Spaling add versatility and depth up front, playing a hard-nosed style. Ehrhoff has been a key, minute-eating piece on the backend.  

Injuries are nothing new for the Pens. This is a team that suffered 529 man-games lost last season, and is somehow remarkably threatening to break the 300-mark again this season. Just 41 games into the year and Pittsburgh has amassed 181 man-games lost. And in odd Pens’ fashion, it’s been of the bizarre variety – whether it’s an unexpected blood clot for Pascal Dupuis, a cancerous tumor of the neck for 20-year-old Olli Maatta or the re-emergence of a 1950s disease like the mumps.

The Pens have already dealt with their share of injury craziness in the past: Tomas Vokoun (blood clot), Kris Letang (stroke), Sidney Crosby (concussion). It’s just been another bizarre season of a bizarre rash of injuries. At some point things will go back to normal and the team can just deal with broken bones and bruises, right? Or nah?

Over the last several years the Pens have stockpiled blue chip defensive prospects. And this year, those draft picks are paying dividends. With injuries depleting the defensive corps, Pittsburgh had to dip into the farm system. Youngsters Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot had to step into big roles and play big minutes. Simon Despres, though not much older than the rest, has established himself as one of the most consistent and reliable defenders. Penguins fans have been waiting for years for these young defensemen to take the next step into the NHL, and they finally saw the beginning of that process.

The Pens’ special teams has been quite an interesting development so far this season. At the onset of the year, the power play was unstoppable. Through the opening 11 games the power play scored 19 times on 46 tries for an incredible 41.3-percent conversion rate. It was so remarkable that many prognosticators had mentioned it was the most productive power play they’d ever seen in the history of the NHL. However, since then the man-advantage has gone 10-for-88, an 11.4-percent success rate. The coaching staff and players have been working diligently to return to their early-season assault on the NHL. They capped the first-half point with a game-winning overtime power-play goal from Sidney Crosby to defeat the Montreal Canadiens, and the team hopes it’s the start of a new upswing.

On the flip side, the penalty kill began the season looking confused and ineffective. In the first three games of the year the PK unit surrendered six goals in just 15 tries (60 percent). But after those three games the Pens have been nearly unbeatable. They’ve successfully killed 126 of 138 penalties for a 91.3 percent rate. They’ve climbed from the basement to become the NHL’s second-ranked PK unit (88.2) at the halfway point, behind only Chicago (89.2). Despite all the injuries and changes on PK personnel, the Pens have managed remain consistent and stingy while shorthanded.

One player the Pens have been able to rely on all season has been their goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury has been the team’s most valuable player. Fleury is having one of the best seasons of his career. His personal-best six shutouts are the most in the NHL, while his 21 wins and 2.16 goals-against average both tied for fifth in the league at the midpoint. Fleury, who received a four-year contract extension in November, has been the team’s rock all year. Without him, who knows where the Pens would be.

Many players have had to step up for the Pens during another injury-riddled season. One player that has really stood out from Game 1 has been defenseman Simon Despres. The Pens saw so much potential in the 6-foot-4, 214-pound D-man that they drafted him with the 30th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. After several seasons of inconsistent play, Despres has finally developed into a legitimate NHL-caliber player. He’s been one of the team’s steadiest blueliners and a reliable defender. He’s improved dramatically this season and the future looks bright for the young talent.

Those new third jerseys. Just phenomenal.

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