Last season, in the 2010 portion of the schedule, the Penguins were blissfully sailing along. At one point, they won twelve games in a row and Sidney Crosby was on a rampage, ravaging opposing defences and goaltenders, seemingly on his way to an historic season of scoring and Pittsburgh was firmly entrenched in the elite class of Stanley Cup contenders. However, when the calendar flipped to 2011, the cold, cruel temperatures of winter became symbolic of the unforgiving, tough breaks the team had to face as they slogged through January and February beset by countless injuries that scuttled their playoff aspirations.
Fast forward to the present.
Defenceman Brooks Orpik started the season as a scratch for the first eight games after off-season hernia surgery before making his 2011-12 debut last Thursday against Montreal. Centre Evgeni Malkin played the first two games, missed the next two, came back for one, then sat out the next five before playing last night on Long Island as he continues to recover from season-ending knee ligament surgery performed in February. Right wing Tyler Kennedy suffered a concussion during a loss against Buffalo two Saturdays ago and is out indefinitely. Defenceman Kris Letang was suspended for two games last week after a boarding penalty in Winnipeg. His replacement, Brian Strait left the game in Minnesota early due to an upper body injury. Last Saturday night, top shot-blocker Zbynek Michalek broke a finger, naturally, by diving to block a shot and will miss the next four to six weeks.
No matter what happens for the rest of 2011, history will record this as a year of terrible luck for the Penguins with respect to this unending parade of injuries. From the inciting event on New Year’s Day to now, there has never been a time when Pittsburgh has played with its full roster intact.
Yet just like last season, the Penguins have persevered. Pittsburgh has determinedly stuck to their game plan and have continued winning hockey games. Consider also: the Penguins have played a densely-packed opening month schedule that has cut down on both rest, recovery and practice time. The club enjoyed their first two-day break of the season this past Sunday and Monday having already played ten games – one-eighth of the schedule – while most teams had only played six or seven games.
After yesterday night’s 3-0 shutout win over the Islanders, Pittsburgh sits 5th overall in the NHL with a .727 points percentage in eleven games (7-2-2) despite missing their top two scorers for seven games and one or both halves of their top defence pair for the season’s first nine games. The keys to winning have been solid special teams play, diversified scoring and continued strength in goaltending.
Pittsburgh’s 97.1% penalty kill percentage leads the NHL but due to Michalek’s injury, the Pens will once again have to adapt. On the first Isles’ power play last night, Orpik was used in Michalek’s usual first unit spot alongside Paul Martin. The Pittsburgh power play has shown a marked improvement relative to last season. They have converted 20% of 45 man-advantage opportunities so far, bolstered by the play of James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal.
On the strength of his explosive wrist shot, Neal has scored a team-high eight goals to lead a club that has fourteen different players with at least one goal, a distinction shared by only three other NHL teams. Grinders such as Joe Vitale, Arron Asham and veteran Richard Park have all chipped in on the scoresheet. Matt Cooke has been typically dependable on the penalty kill with one shorthanded goal already on his ledger. Additionally, Vitale, Park, Mark Letestu and an improved Staal have guided the Penguins to sixth in the league in faceoff win percentage, a vital skill in Pittsburgh’s puck-possession system.
Finally, the glue that has held the Penguins together early in the season has been goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. In eight games, he remains perfect in shorthanded situations and has allowed no more than two goals in his last four starts, recording a .966 SV% on 119 shots. Fleury and Brent Johnson have limited opponents to 1.91 goals per game, fifth-best in the NHL.
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch