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Inside Scoop: Assessing the Early Season

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens' 2016-17 season is only 15 games deep. But here are some random observations about the team. 

*There is a lot of hype surrounding the next generational talents of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews - and deservedly so. Pens fans had a chance to see their talents first-hand last week.

But lest anyone forget, the NHL's current best player is still Sidney Crosby.

Crosby has torn up the scoring sheet since returning from a concussion - which sidelined him for the first 6 games of the season. Crosby has been scoring more than a goal-per-game with 10 tallies in 9 contests. His 10 goals rank 2nd in the entire NHL behind Patrik Laine's 11.

Crosby believes his early game action in September during the World Cup of Hockey - of which he led Team Canada to gold while being named tournament MVP - helped him with his quick offensive start to the season.

"We finished in June and right into those (World Cup) games, you're used to playing that kind of tight checking hockey. With that fresh it helps transition," Crosby said. "At the end of the day you need some bounces too and I've been fortunate enough to get them. But I definitely think the World Cup has helped."

Video: MIN@PIT: Crosby deflects home PPG shortside

*Crosby is the NHL's best playmaking center, so his recent goal-scoring explosion is showing people that he is a threat in all facets of the game.

Meanwhile, most people would think of winger Phil Kessel as more of a goal-scoring threat because he has one of the best snap shots in the NHL. But this season he's been flashing his playmaking skills and leads the Pens with 10 assists.

Crosby and Kessel are showing the league that they are dangerous no matter what the circumstances may be.

*Speaking of Kessel, right now he may be the hottest player in the NHL on the man-advantage. His 9 power-play points rank 2nd in the league.

Another player excelling on the power play has been winger Patric Hornqvist. The Swede has 4 power-play goals (tied for 5th in NHL) and 7 power-play points (t-9th).

"When you have 'Sid,' 'Geno,' Phil (Kessel) and 'Tanger' on the ice at the same time, they get the puck, they see those openings," Hornqvist said. "I just try to be in front of the net, open up space for them and right now it's working."

*The Pens have been getting scoring contributions throughout their lineup, but the team's most consistent scorer has been center Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin leads the team in scoring with 15 points (8G-7A) and has registered at least 1 point in 8 of his last 9 games (6G-4A).

Video: EDM@PIT: Malkin redirects Kessel's pass over Talbot

"We're pleased that he's getting rewarded," head coach Mike Sullivan told me. "But for us he's one of those guys in the league that has that innate ability to change the outcome of a game single handedly."

*Matt Murray has been the human incarnation of a brick wall for Pittsburgh. Even though he missed the early part of the season while recovering from a broken hand, Murray has returned to the pipes in championship form.

"I've felt pretty good the last little bit," Murray told me. "It's just a day-by-day thing. I'm still relatively new to this league so I'm trying to feel more and more comfortable as I go here."

Murray, who is technically in his rookie season, boasts a 4-0 record with a 1.25 goals-against average and .961 save percentage. He's surrendered just 5 total goals in his 4 starts and has 1 shutout.

Numbers aside, Murray has looked phenomenal in net. His reads are on point, his positioning is solid, his puck tracking has been excellent and most importantly, he's kept the puck out of the net.

Murray has stopped 124 of 129 shots he's faced. Though if you ask him, and I did, he would rather stop 129 of 129.

"It's always a pursuit of being as good as possible," Murray said. "I don't think you ever get to where you want to be because you always want to be better and better."

Video: TOR@PIT: Murray slides across to deny Martin in front

*Remember back in October when the Pens lost 5-1 to an ill-riddled Nashville Predators team? That setback gave the Pens a 3-2-1 record out of the gate. And Sullivan was not pleased with his team's performance.

"We have to be better," he said following that loss.

Since then, the Pens have been better. Pittsburgh has gone 7-1-1 in its past 9 games. The returns of Crosby and Kris Letang have certainly helped, but the Pens overall play has improved.

*Lastly, don't overlook the contributions of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the early going of the season. The team leaned heavily on Fleury while Murray was on the mend. Fleury started the first 9 games of the season, including in back-to-back contests. 

The Pens, as stated above, were not playing their best hockey during the early stretch of the season and hung their goaltender out to dry. But his outstanding play, just like last season during the early games, kept the team afloat until they could find their game. Pittsburgh went 6-2-1 with Fleury. And if it were for his play, they could have really dug themselves an early-season hole. 

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