Imagine if Sidney Crosby actually had a high-end winger to play with.
Seems like finding one is always on the Penguins wish list, or at least recommended to them, but in the meantime Pittsburgh’s superstar isn’t doing all that badly flanked by Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Without the true 40-goal type who would benefit most from Crosby’s feeding ability, the Kid still managed to rack up 14 assists in 14 November games, not to mention 12 goals, and to earn the league’s first star of the month award.
He's been doing just as much that doesn't show up on the scoresheet, but being the driving force in Pittsburgh is nothing new to Crosby. Still he has taken his game up another notch of late and not coincidentally, so have the Penguins. Crosby finished the month with a 13-game scoring streak while the Penguins have won their last seven and gone 9-0-1 in the last 10.
That officially makes Pittsburgh the hottest team in the NHL and by a nice twist of fate, it sets up an interesting evening Thursday because the league’s second hottest team will be visiting.
The Atlanta Thrashers have won their last six games and they’ve beaten some of the league’s best teams convincingly along the way. Their goalie Ondrej Pavelec has become a feel-good story too for bouncing back so well from a scary fainting spell on opening night, but in Atlanta now, the big thing has been the emergence, or should we say the eruption of Dustin Byfuglien.
Byfuglien made a name for himself as a forward during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring with the Blackhawks, but he was moved back to his natural position on defense after the Thrashers traded for him and he's been on fire all season. More important, Byfuglien has become the focal point for Atlanta, contributing big time offense from the defense and often leading the Thrashers attack with his intimidating 258 pound presence.
He’s also the third star of the month in the NHL (Montreal goalie Carey Price was No. 2) for scoring 17 points including five goals in 14 games. And remarkably for a defenseman, Byfuglien leads the league with five game-winning goals.
One defenseman unlikely to ever lead in that category though is the newest member of the Washington Capitals. In fact the Capitals will be hard pressed to get any goals at all from Scott Hannan, who has averaged about three in 10 plus seasons. And he didn’t score in Colorado before the Avalanche traded him to Washington this week.
The deal saw Colorado pick up Tomas Fleischmann, a left wing has shown flashes of being a top six forward in Washington. But Fleischmann's production dropped off noticeably as last season wore onand his conditioning was questioned this season, so his ice time diminished. But he’ll get more of a chance to play with the injury-depleted Avs, who will also save a little money because Fleischmann makes about $2 million less than Hannan.
But Colorado didn’t necessarily trade Hannan for money reasons, althought the price of re-signing the 31-year-old’s pending unrestricted free agent probably factored into the equation. But the Avs have been rightfully impressed with the play of 21-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk since he made his NHL debut early in November. And they picked up defenseman Matt Hunwick – traded by Boston for a prospect so the Bruins have cap space to active Marc Savard from the injured list -- so they are still in good shape along the blue line.
Colorado needed help up front and they’re hoping Fleischmann takes advantage of a fresh start.
Meanwhile, Hannan is a very good fit in Washington. He’s the kind of shutdown, stay-at-home defenseman that has been missing from a Caps team that has been conditioned to attack,and he is joining them early enough in the season to get comfortable with the type of game they play.
The Caps have made a point of trying to be better defensively this season and on many nights this season they have been. But Hannan is the kind of piece this team would probably be looking for at the trade deadline. Washington has just speeded up the process, something that rarely happens in that city.
Finally, condolences to the family of longtime hockey writer Jim Kelley, who passed away at age 61 this week after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Kelley spent much of his career covering the Buffalo Sabres, but worked for a variety of national organizations over the last decade and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.