The Pittsburgh Penguins are rolling along to another big regular season. The Pens lead the Metropolitan Division by a whopping 16 points and are on track to be the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh has spent the portion of the regular season prior to the Olympic break shoring up some of the problems that tripped them up in last year’s playoffs, but also just got some bad news on the injury front.
Defense was the problem in Pittsburgh a year ago. It was a problem that lingered all year and finally was exposed in full view when they lost four straight to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. This year’s Pens team is playing tougher.
The team defense is sixth in the league in shots allowed. Marc-Andre Fleury has made some needed improvements in goal, and while he’s only 15th among NHL goalies in save percentage, it’s a step forward and good enough for the team overall to be seventh in goals allowed.
Pittsburgh’s defense doesn’t have to be great, just good—and it’s because the offense is great. They’re churning out goals again, fourth-best in the NHL in scoring. James Neal and Chris Kunitz are both top-shelf scorers on the left side, each already having gone over twenty goals apiece on the year. Kunitz’s 30 assists further mark him as one of the game’s better passers.
Few move the puck better than Sidney Crosby though and the center’s 41 assists are in the league’s elite. What’s scary about the Pittsburgh offense is that they haven’t even hit full throttle yet. Evgeni Malkin, one of the best players in the world, has had a subpar year. But the most important part of the season is still ahead.
Pittsburgh does have an offensive issue in that the right side of the ice really doesn’t produce. But that pales next to the problem they now have with regard to Kris Letang. Prior to the Olympic break, the defenseman had a stroke and was listed as being out six weeks. Now the reports are that the Penguins are preparing to finish the season without him.
Letang is another one of the great passers on this team, one of the NHL’s best at setting people up from the back line. As a finesse player, his absence probably won’t hurt the team’s defensive improvement, but it will be a hit to the offense.
Ultimately though, no one questions that the Pittsburgh Penguins have the offensive firepower to win the Stanley Cup. It’s the defense and goaltending that have been the question marks. The former is markedly better and the latter at least tolerable.
Whether it’s the kind of improvement that can lead them past Boston and then whomever emerges out of a potent Western Conference is the next question. But for now, the good people of the Steel City can enjoy another year of top-caliber hockey.