Pittsburgh Penguins’ star Sidney Crosby doesn’t look to be any closer to re-taking the ice due to recurring problems with a concussion. Could the Penguins make a run at duplicating their back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008-09, including a championship the latter season, without their top dog? It’s hard to see how, but the Penguins closed January on a tear, winning eight straight games. Even though they’ve dropped two of the last three, those have all been on the road and the win was a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 2-1 win in Boston. TheSportsNotebook goes inside the win streak to see if it’s sustainable.
The Penguins are an overall fundamentally sound team that does everything pretty well, from scoring to defending, to the power play to executing in normal 5-on-5 situations. If there’s an area they really stand out it’s the ability to get shots and prevent the same, ranking second in the NHL in both categories. The flip side of that stat is that there’s question marks about how good the shots are, if they’re not corresponding to goals (where Pittsburgh is seventh), or if there’s a lack of a true finisher to make them count—i.e., Crosby. And defensively, we have to look at goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and note that while 10th in the 30-team NHL is fine for goals against, shouldn’t he be doing better, consider how good a defense led by Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik are at keeping him from being besieged by pucks?
Evgeni Malkin went a long way to answering the question regarding the offense. Malkin is at center, and would get my vote for the MVP if we had to pick today, with 29 goals and 32 assists. In the eight-game winning streak Malkin put the team on his back and invited them along for the ride. He scored at least one goal in all eight games. In a January 15 win at Tampa it was a hat trick. He won two games in the shootout session. On January 19 Malkin went to Madison Square Garden and scored twice against the East-leading New York Rangers. One of his shootout wins came one day later at Montreal, where the center created the shootout by scoring the game-tying goal in the third period. Back home against Washington, Malkin scored a conventional overtime goal to beat the Capitals, after having dished two assists in regulation. The month closed on January 31, when the Penguins rallied from 4-1 down against an otherwise hot Toronto team, scoring three goals in the final twelve minutes, the last by Malkin.
What I took a paragraph to describe can be summed up in one sentence—Evgeni Malkin is carrying the Penguins.
But how far can he carry the team? In fairness to his teammates, James Neal is an excellent supporting piece, a good scorer and assist man in his own right on the left wing, and when Neal is off the ice, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz are respectable third and fourth-line contributors. But there’s not much on the right win and even in the win streak, the goaltending still raised red flags. To be sure, Fleury had his moments, but when I have to describe this many instances of the center bailing the team with third-period and overtime heroics, doesn’t that say something about the quality of the goaltending? Can you imagine someone like Tim Thomas (Boston), Henrik Lundqvist (New York) or Jimmy Howard (Detroit) putting their team’s best players in that situation?
The flip side of all this is with the Penguins consistently winning the battles for shots, they’re giving their goalie every opportunity to get hot. They’ve won the Cup with Fleury in goal before, so it can be done, but the pressure is on not only Malkin and Neal, but also defenseman Letang and Orpik to keep winning the battles between the nets and hope for the best from their goalie.
SAME STORY IN CHICAGO
Chicago’s got a similar profile to Pittsburgh—some great scorers, good overall team, but being dragged down by the goalie. The difference is that the Blackhawks take it to an even greater extreme, and they’ve also been in a slump, having dropped five straight.
While the Blackhawks have an even deeper offensive cast than the Penguins, with center Jonathan Toewes and right-wingers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, they’re 5-on-5 play is a little worse than Pittsburgh, and their penalty-kill is atrocious. But in fairness to defenseman Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, it makes more sense to put the blame on instability in the net. Because while the Blackhawks are a lowly 26th in goals allowed, they’re 11th in shots allowed. Now it’s about whether Corey Crawford and Ray Emery can step up and be consistent between the pipes.
If you go through Chicago’s five-game losing streak what stands out is that four of them were on the road, so we don’t want to overreact. But they have not gotten power play opportunities and as a result the offense has been mostly quiet, save for a loss in Edmonton when a complete goalie meltdown caused an 8-4 loss. Chicago does not play at a championship level in the conventional 5-on-5 game. When you rely on the power play for your offense, and can’t stop the other team from doing the same, you’re akin to a college basketball team that goes on the road knowing it needs a favorably officiated game to win. Would you feel confident about such a team?
The losing streak will straighten itself out. Toews has been dealing with an illness and even though he’s logging his minutes, it’s surely not helping. And while they’re on the road tonight, it’s a manageable spot in Colorado, and eventually they’ll get more games in the United Center. But this team’s flaws in basic 5-on-5 play and on the penalty kill have been exposed in these last five games and they won’t keep up with Detroit and red-hot Nashville if this continues.