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Pittsburgh Penguins Mid-Season Report

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Reflection and prediction are the themes of the day each December 31st. Prognosticators and analysts all over the world look back on the top moments of the previous calendar year and peek forward to predict the trends for the next 365 days. With the Pittsburgh Penguins now 41 games into an 82-game slate we take a look at the players, moments and games which made the first half so special and detail why we should expect more of the same throughout the second half.

Despite overcoming a rash of injuries, particularly on defense, the Penguins will begin the New Year with a 26-14-1 record which places them fourth in the Eastern Conference standings and, with 53 points, has them tied with the Phoenix Coyotes for the fifth-most points in the National Hockey League. Only the Washington Capitals (143) and San Jose Sharks (135) have scored more than their 131 tallies while at the same time they have allowed the ninth-fewest goals of any team.

“When you end up with 26 wins you do a lot of good things,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “A lot of that is work ethic and the character of our guys and wanting to be a better team and knowing we have to get better. From that standpoint we have finished 41 games establishing that.”

“It is a progression,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We were not going to come into the season thinking we were going to be in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final form. It’s a progression. We have to build towards that.”

While the Penguins continue to build towards being a team capable of reaching their third-consecutive Stanley Cup Final here are some of the highlights of the first half of the ’09-10 season and a glance at what the second half has to offer:

Team MVP: Sidney Crosby
Four years ago Canada left an 18-year-old Crosby off their Olympic roster. Now 22 and firmly established as one of the top all-around players in the NHL, Crosby was named an alternate captain for the 2010 team. He leads the Penguins and ranks fifth in the league with 48 points (23G-25A) and his eight power-play goals are tied for third-best.

Gaudy offensive statistics have been synonymous with Crosby but he is doing even more of the little things in this campaign. He enters Thursday’s games with a league-leading 505 faceoff wins while his 58.0-winning percentage on the dots is ninth-best. Crosby has taken on more penalty killing chores, scoring a game-tying shorthanded score against Florida on Oct. 23 and then adding the deciding tally in the shootout. He also slid through the crease against Anaheim on Nov. 3 to make a pad save on Scott Niedermayer to secure a 4-3 victory.

Hightlights from Sidney Crosby's third career hat trick against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 28 at Mellon Arena.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role: Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury began the season with a personal-best eight-game winning streak and he hasn’t looked back since. With 22 wins at the midway point he is on pace to surpass his career high total of 40 set in 2006-07. Only Martin Brodeur (25) has more victories.

Fleury earned his appointment to the Canadian Olympic team by providing some of the most consistent goaltending of his career. Through his first 34 starts Fleury has allowed two or less goals 21 times. In his past 16 starts Fleury has posted an 11-4-1 record to go with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.

Marc-Andre Fleury denied Vinny Prospal in the season opener with this glove save and has been nearly unbeatable since.

Unsung Hero: Ray Shero
It’s a whole lot easier typing Ray Shero than it is the names Mike Rupp, Jay McKee, Brent Johnson and Martin Skoula. Those are the four players signed by Shero in the offseason and there is little chance the Penguins would have 53 points if these four were not brought on board.

Rupp was brought on to provide a physical element on the bottom lines but already has a career high with 10 goals, second most on the team among wingers behind Bill Guerin (12). McKee’s ability to step in front of opposing shots and make the simple play has allowed both the team and the fans to forget about the offseason losses of defensive specialists Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill.

The signings of Johnson and Skoula received less fanfare but their contributions have been critical. Johnson has posted a 4-3 record between the pipes and has been the best player on the ice for the Penguins in most of his starts. Skoula has been a great fit as a seventh defenseman. His two goals against Atlanta on Nov. 21 paved the way to a 3-2 win.

Best Game: Penguins defeat Boston 6-5 in overtime on Nov. 14
The Penguins were in the midst of season-worst four-game losing streak and led the Boston Bruins the entire contests before third-period goals off the sticks of David Krejci and Marco Sturm gave Boston a late 5-4 lead. A dramatic finished erased Boston’s comeback.

Evgeni Malkin, playing for the first time in seven games due to injury, recorded his third assist of the game when his cross-ice feed found the stick of Bill Guerin in the right circle. Guerin’s snap shot eluded Tim Thomas’ blocker to send the game to overtime with 0.4 seconds remaining. In the extra session Jordan Staal stole the biscuit off Thomas behind the net and centered a pass to Pascal Dupuis who deposited the puck into the empty cage for the victory and his 100th career goal.

Best Goal: Sidney Crosby vs. New York Rangers on Nov. 28
With a fake flick of the wrist Sidney Crosby skated closer to the slot and then did unleash a shot over the shoulder of the Rangers Steve Valiquette to complete his fourth career hat trick and second of the season. The moment was made even more picturesque as it was hat night at Mellon Arena presented by Highmark and the post-Thanksgiving crowd had no trouble showering the ice with their giveaway. Crosby’s hat trick began a career-best stretch where he scored seven times over a three-game span.

Best Save: Marc-Andre Fleury on Saku Koivu at Anaheim on Nov. 3
Pascal Dupuis had given the Penguins a 4-3 lead just minutes earlier when Marc-Andre Fleury robbed Saku Koivu to preserve that margin and help the Penguins establish a franchise record with their seventh-straight road victory to open the season.

The puck came to Teemu Selanne behind the Penguins net and his centering pass went through the skates of a Penguins defender right to the tape of Koivu. The slick center’s shot was ticketed for the bottom-left corner of the net but Fleury had other ideas by catching Koivu’s shot with his glove.

What Worked Best: Penalty Kill
The Penguins have been one of the top defensive teams in the league at even strength and teams have found Pittsburgh just as stingy when it is down by a man. With a success rate of 83.6 percent through Thursday the Penguins have the league’s 10th best penalty kill. The Penguins have also proved dangerous offensively when they have less skaters than their opponents, ranking fifth in the league (tied) with five shorthanded markers.

What Needs Improvement: Power Play
As great as the penalty kill has been the power play could still use some work heading into the second half. Despite a wealth of skill on their top unit the Penguins have the lowest-ranked man-advantage in the league at 15.1 percent through Thursday. Although the numbers aren’t where the Penguins want them, head coach Dan Bylsma has been happy with the Penguins recent improvement in this area and he expects this trend to continue.

“I think our power play in the last 10 games has really come a long way,” Bylsma said. “I think that is something that’s a focus. That is something that has to continue to be a factor – special teams in the second half of the season.”

Most Intriguing Second-Half Game: Penguins vs. Washington on Jan. 21
The first of four matchups fans across the world having been waiting all season for unfolds on Jan. 21 at Mellon Arena. Alexander Ovechkin and the high-flying Washington Capitals square off with the Penguins for the first time since the Penguins’ thrilling seven-game second round victory over the Capitals this summer.

As usual their will be a wealth of offensive talent on both sides in this potential Eastern Conference Finals preview. Adding further intrigue to this game is the Penguins Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin each rank among the top-five scorers in the league as they battle to grab their second Art Ross Trophy.

Highlights from the Penguins' 6-2 victory over the Capitals in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Second-Most Intriguing Second-Half Game: Penguins vs. Detroit on Jan. 31
What a second half of January for Penguins fans. Ten days after the Penguins play host to Washington another fierce rival visits Pittsburgh as the Detroit Red Wings step onto the Mellon Arena ice for the first time since Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Daniel Cleary’s breakaway attempt late in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to send the series to a decisive seventh game.

Yes, the Penguins exacted revenge on the Wings by winning that final game. No, Marian Hossa no longer wears the Red Wing logo. Neither fact matters in this emerging intra-conference rivalry. Could this be a prequel to a third straight Cup Final between the teams? That answer will be provided in June but on this night Penguins fans can bask in the glory of dethroning the Wings last June.

The Penguins hold on to defeat the Detroit Red Wings, 2-1, to capture the 2009 Stanley Cup championship.

Player to Watch: Sergei Gonchar
Sergei Gonchar rarely gets the credit he deserves for being one of the top two-way defenders in the game but he will be a huge factor in the Penguins’ fortunes coming down the stretch. One of the top power-play quarterbacks in the league, the Penguins have a 20-8-1 (.724 pct.) record with Gonchar in the lineup and only a 6-6 mark without him.

Gonchar once again leads all Penguins defenders with 23 points (5G-18A) in 29 games and is on pace to register 56 points for the eighth time in the past eight full seasons he has played despite missing 12 games. In the 20 contests since his return Gonchar has posted three goals and 12 assists.

Key Stat Moving Forward: Penguins’ 16-0 Record When Scoring Four or More Goals
Few teams in the NHL can match the Penguins offensive firepower. When you combine that with the solid netminding provided by Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson you have a combination which is tough to beat. The Penguins have won every game this season when they have scored at least four goals. The more times they reach this total in the second half the more unlikely it’s going to be for teams to have success against them.

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