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Tag:James Neal
Posted on: January 24, 2012 4:26 pm
Edited on: January 25, 2012 10:26 am
 

How the NHL's top scorers have been used

The Kings are relying on Anze Kopitar to do it all. (Getty Images)
Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at how the NHL's have top scorers have been used this season.

By: Adam Gretz


Of all the top scorers in the league this season the most overlooked and underappreciated one of them all might be Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.

Not only because he's their leading scorer (and one of the only players on the team that's actually having a good season offensively) but also because they are asking him to play in every possible situation against the best players on a nightly basis.

More often than not in recent years the player that finishes the regular season as the NHL's leading scorer also tends to take home the Hart Trophy as the league MVP, as has happened in six of the past 10 years. In two of the four years it didn't happen, the Hart went to the player that scored the most goals. That kind of gives you an idea as to what voters are looking at, at least in part -- total production, whether it be goals and/or total points.

Of course, there is a ton of value in a player that scores enough to lead the league in any or both of those categories, and that player is obviously going to be one of the best players in the league. That is, after all, the most basic concept of the game: score goals.

But not all scorers play in situations that are created equal. Some players are put into situations where they can focus entirely on offense (like, say, Henrik and Daniel Sedin).

Others are given assignments that aren't quite as conducive to putting up points because of what might be greater defensive responsibilities, whether it be playing more minutes as a penalty killer, where offensive is nearly impossible to come by, or simply playing more even strength shifts in areas where defense has to take a priority over offense (such as a faceoff in the defensive zone).

Last week we looked at the top rookies that have been given the toughest assignments this season, and this week we're going to take a similar look at how the top-25 scorers in the league (at the start of this week) have been utilized by their teams. The chart below takes into account all five-on-five situations and locates players based on the quality of competition they face, as well as the percentage of their shifts that start in the offensive zone (both numbers via BehindTheNet).

The closer a player is to the top left, the harder the assignments. The closer to the bottom right, the "easier."

This, again, is the top-25 scorers in the NHL at the start of this week.

TopScorers

1) See those two guys way out on the right, all by themselves? Those are the Sedin twins, and it's easy to see what their role is for the Canucks. Along with their regular linemate, Alex Burrows, the Sedin's start a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone than any player in the league (not just among the top scorers, but all players) and there really isn't anybody else that is even remotely close to them.

After Burrows, who again is their linemate, the only other regular player in the NHL that has a mark over 70 percent is Tampa Bay's well known defensive sieve, Marc-Andre Bergeron. And these guys are bordering on the 80 percent mark. This is not a new development for the Canucks, as head coach Alain Vigneault has pretty much always used his players this way, whether it be making sure that the Sedin's are always playing in the offensive zone, or players like Manny Malhotra are always on the ice for defensive zone draws.

Obviously, the Canucks are not the only team that operates this way and puts certain players in certain spots, as most of the top-scorers shown above are used in similar situations (favorable five-on-five roles, a lot of power play time, almost no time on the penalty kill). Though, the Canucks do seem to be the most committed to it, and as I mentioned in this week's Power Rankings, if it weren't for icing calls that forced them to stay on the ice for a faceoff in their own zone, I wonder if the Sedin's would ever be asked to start a shift in their own end of the ice.

2) The MVP campaign for Philadelphia's Claude Giroux is no joke, and if there were any doubts about his ability to take over the No. 1 center role in Philadelphia and play the tough minutes that Mike Richards previously played, well, you can forget about it. He's not only playing the key even strength minutes, he also spends two-and-a-half minutes per game on the penalty kill. And he's still the second leading scorer in the NHL, even with the fact that he's missed four games.

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk is having a similar season, but we already knew he's capable of that and he's simply continuing to do what he's always done throughout his career -- play unmatched two-way hockey and dazzle with his obscene level of skill.

3) Where would the Kings and Devils be without Kopitar and Patrik Elias this season? Not only are they the top point producers for two teams that have little offense after them, but they have also been doing it under less-than-ideal circumstances for offense, while both spend significant time every night killing penalties for two of the top penalty killing teams in the league. Kopitar, for example, logs 2:28 of shorthanded ice time per game for the Kings, while Elias checks in at just under two minutes per game. Of the 25 players on the scatterplot above, only nine of them play more than one minute of shorthanded ice-time per game. Twelve of them play less than 10 seconds per game.

Does this mean that players like Kopitar and Elias are better than players like the Sedins, or Evgeni Malkin and James Neal? Or having better seasons? Well, no, not exactly, because those guys are still scoring at pretty impressive rates and being relied on to carry their teams offensively. In the cases of Malkin and Neal, for example, they're pretty much the only guys scoring for their team right now, so that can't be underestimated.

It does, however, mean that perhaps the gap isn't quite as big as the point total or goal total would indicate.

It means that a player like Kopitar, who never seems to get much attention as being one of the best players in the league (he's not even an All-Star this season, for whatever that's worth) is probably extremely underrated and underappreciated for what he has done for his team every single night this season, and the way he's gone about doing it.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: January 23, 2012 12:29 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2012 12:37 pm
 

Alex Goligoski signs 4-year extension with Stars

By: Adam Gretz

The Dallas Stars locked up what they consider to be one of their franchise players on Monday morning by signing defenseman Alex Goligoski to a four-year contract extension that will pay him $18.4 million, which comes down to an annual salary cap hit of $4.6 million.

Said general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, “Alex Goligoski is one of our core players and we are very pleased to get him under contract during the prime of his career. Alex is a character person and one of the anchors of our blue-line. He’s a big part of our hockey club.”

The 26-year-old defenseman was acquired by the Stars last season in the deal that sent forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh. Neal has since turned into one of the NHL's top goal-scorers for the Penguins, while it was a trade that saw both teams deal from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness. Since arriving in Dallas Goligoski has been one of the Stars' top defenseman.

He's missed some time this season due to injury, but has been their power play quarterback and logs more minutes per game than any other player on the team. It's certaily not a cheap contract for the Stars, but that seems to be the going rate for defensemen that can skate, produce offensively and play a ton of minutes every night, as Goligoski can.

In 59 games since the trade he's scored 10 goals to go with 20 assists for Dallas.

Had he and the team not come to an agreement on a new deal before July 1 he would have been eligible to become a restricted free agent. Now that he's signed for the next four years, the Stars have three of their top defenseman -- Goligoski, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley -- all signed for at least the next three seasons and taking up just a little more than $11 million in salary cap space.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: January 22, 2012 9:25 am
Edited on: January 22, 2012 7:20 pm
 

The Penguins rediscovered their winning ways

BylsmaBy: Adam Gretz

A little over a week ago the sky appeared to be falling when it came to the Pittsburgh Penguins and their season.

The team was riding a six-game losing streak, they were on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture for the time being and there was even a discussion as to whether or not some players on the team held a meeting regarding a potential temporary captain in the absence of Sidney Crosby. That, of course, was followed by the entire team hitting the ice for practice by all wearing C's on their jerseys on the same day they started a five-game winning streak, which was extended to six games with a 4-3 overtime win against Washington on Sunday afternoon. 

It would certainly be a nice narrative to suggest that show of solidarity and team-bonding (if you want to call it that) was the springboard for their return to the win-column, but it's actually a lot more reasonable than that: the team simply wasn't as bad as it looked during that stretch, and they got back to doing a lot of the things that originally made them successful.

That six-game losing streak was the perfect storm where slumps, uncharacteristically sloppy play and bad luck all met at the same point in the season. Every mistake they made ended up in the back of their net, and no matter how many chances they generated or shots they fired on goal at the other end, they weren't getting the same fortune and couldn't seem to buy a goal.

Even though offense was difficult to come by, with the team scoring just six goals over the six games, they were still out-shooting their opponents by a significant margin in every game, indicating that they were still controlling puck possession, an area that has been one of the team's strengths ever since Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench during the 2008-09 season. It was also perhaps a sign that, eventually, they would be able to break through.

During that streak the Penguins, as a team, were shooting around 3 percent, while their opponents were pumping in goals at a 14 percent rate, two percentages that were in no way going to continue for an extended period of time (keep in mind, the league average is typically around 9 percent in a given season, as it is once again this year, and the best and worst teams usually shoot in the neighborhood of 10 and 7 percent respectively). While they may have been lacking a large number of true "scoring chances," and a lot of the shots may have been coming from the perimeter, the more time you spend in the offensive zone the more chances there are for a defensive breakdown by the other team, the more opportunities you're going to get for a second or third chance shot, and, really, the more bad things that can happen for the team trying to defend as they get worn down trying to defend, especially against an aggressive forechecking team.

The whole thing was actually pretty reminiscent of the losing streak the Detroit Red Wings had earlier in the season (also a six-game drought, driven largely by a lack of goal-scoring), and one that was followed by them winning 14 of the following 18 games.

Before the Penguins' 5-4 come-from-behind win against Montreal on Friday night, I asked Bylsma if he felt that his team was on the verge of putting together a run of games like this given the way they had previously been playing, and some of the things they were able to do, even in defeat, and he seemed to think it all started to turn around with their 1-0 loss in Washington back on Jan. 11.

"When two losses turns into four and six, you start to feel a little bit like when the next one is going to come," said Bylsma. "We liked a lot of the things we did. We maybe didn't react well to situations in the games, like other teams scoring, making a mistake, maybe a referee call -- we weren't reacting well, and it was causing us to find ways to lose, or find a way to let teams back into games.

"I think it started with the Washington game. Our attitude changed, our mindset changed, and in addition to playing well and having possession of the puck,  we were playing a little bit more with an edge, a little bit more of an attitude and the way we need to play the game."

It also probably wasn't a coincidence that their worst stretch of the season also took place during the exact same time that Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, their two best players this season, hit their first extended slumps of the season. Both have since gone on new scoring streaks, especially Malkin as he continues to shine in the absence of Crosby, and has been one of the best offensive players in the league this season. But Bylsma was also quick to point out that it's not just about his point production, and that he might be playing the best even-strength hockey of his career.

"It's easy to look at the highlights and say he's playing amazing," said Bylsma. "But it's much harder to look at his whole game. How he's playing without the puck, how he's playing defensively, the number of minutes he's playing, who he's playing against, how he and his line with Chris Kunitz and James Neal have been able to play a real dominating game, and not just the fact they're scoring points and getting goals, but maybe his best hockey at 5-on-5 that he's played in his career. And he's been doing it for a long stretch of hockey right now and leading our team."

Among the numerous injuries the Penguins have dealt with at various times this season, one of the most recent was to center Jordan Staal, the player that almost always plays some of the toughest minutes on the team and handles the toughest assignments. In his absence Malkin, one of the few natural centers remaining in the lineup, has taken on more of those responsibilites in recent weeks, playing more minutes and getting more shifts against other teams top lines.

They still have a franchise center, and now that Kris Letang, their best all-around defenseman, is back in the lineup, that six-game losing streak might be starting to become a thing of the past.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: January 10, 2012 11:39 am
Edited on: January 10, 2012 11:41 am
 

James Neal's foot not broken, will play Tuesday

By Brian Stubits

It was just Sunday that the Pittsburgh Penguins announced Jordan Staal would be out 4-6 weeks and James Neal had a broken foot that would keep him out of action for a while.

Two days later, it looks as though Neal isn't even going to miss a game. Don't you just love hockey players?

With the Penguins having a long list already of guys injured, Neal was a surprise in the team's morning skate on Tuesday in preparation for Pittsburgh's game against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night. The surprises continued after the skate when Neal revealed he's not going to miss any time.

"I'm good to go. I'm ready to play tonight," Neal said Tuesday. "After an MRI yesterday, it can’t get any worse. So I’m good to play on it."

A big reason why was a misdiagnosis the first time around. The Penguins were off a little with the broken foot announcement.

"The first test on Neal showed a fracture," coach Dan Bylsma said. "MRI showed pre-existing condition. He has a bone bruise but can play."

Well there's a surprise. It will be very interesting to watch how Neal skates and how many minutes he plays tonight against the Sens.

You have to wonder if aiding in this decision is the Penguins' struggles at the moment, both with injury and on the ice. They have lost four in a row and are very dinged up with Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Staal injured.

If he's able to play near 100 percent than obviously it's a big lift to the Penguins. Neal has been a very good goal scorer for the Pens this season, particularly on the power play where he has netted 10 of his 21 tallies.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: January 8, 2012 3:11 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2012 3:32 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: This one's for the good guys

By Brian Stubits

While you were busy worrying about the upcoming summer of labor after the NHLPA declined the realignment plan ...

With all due respect to the guys of Green Day, nice guys really can finish first. Or at least succeed.

Saturday was a milestone day for two of the classiest and most loyal players in the NHL. One milestone awesome, the other simply dumbfounding, on a couple of levels.

First, the awesome: Jarome Iginla's 500th goal in Saturday night's win against the Minnesota Wild. Nobody is surprised that Iginla hit the 500-goal mark in his career. I've seen it argued that he would have passed that milestone a while ago if he had played with some better centers in his time with the Calgary Flames.

It doesn't matter how ugly it might have been. Iginla's had enough beauties in his career, I don't think for one second he was worried about it coming on a pass from the boards that bounced off skates and into the net.

I could go on about with platitudes about the class of guy that Iginla is. People already know that and my personal experience with the guy did nothing at all to change that impression for me. I like to point to this somewhat infamous and incredibly cringe-worthy exchange with Iginla and a reporter earlier this season that Iginla dealt with as patiently as any player could, even though nobody knew what exactly was being asked.

Iginla became only the 42nd player in NHL history to hit the plateau. So we're talking about a pretty exclusive club. Iginla's case is even more unique when one realizes that he became only the ninth player ever to score his first 500 goals with one team.

Every franchise usually has a designated Mr. (fill in the team name). Iginla no doubt is Mr. Flame.

The second milestone also came from a Mr. Franchise type and it was a bit more amazing.

Unless you work for the Elias Sports Bureau or are the biggest Phoenix Coyotes fan out there, it probably caught you by surprise that Shane Doan's hat trick on Saturday night was the first of his career.

It took him 1,161 games to get there, but Doan finally put three in in one game. And it's not like we're talking about a guy who doesn't score. He joins Scott Mellenby as the only other player in NHL history to score 300 goals before his first hat trick.

The most amazing part of all? It took Doan 59 minutes, 59 and 9/10 of a second to get that third goal.

Sometimes you can't make this stuff up.

Like Iginla, Doan has been a consummate professional, a player with the loyalty to a franchise that fans love to see in sports these days. This is a guy who has stuck with a franchise that has been surrounded in questions for a couple of years but has stuck with the only team he has ever known.

A little bit of irony in Doan's goal coming with only 0.1 second left, the Coyotes fell victim to a similar situation earlier this season. The Rangers potted a goal with the same exact amount of time on the clock. The only difference between those two last-second tallies? The Rangers' was for a win, Doan's for the hat trick in an already-decided game.

And all those hats he collected? They are reportedly being donated to the Phoenix Children's Hospital.

It was almost as if Saturday was a night for the good guys in the NHL. Two great honors for two great players. Certainly beats more concussions.

Blue moon

The St. Louis Blues are no fluke, people. This sample size with Ken Hitchcock at the helm is big enough to draw that conclusion.

More from the weekend
Recaps
Stories

The Blues are in the Central Division. They compete with the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators. Yet, after Saturday's games, it's the Blues that are sitting in first place of the monster division, for my money the best in the NHL.

St. Louis dominated the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, pitching a 4-0 shutout. The Avs had been maybe the hottest team in the NHL, bringing a four-game win streak into the Lou. Instead they were just another victim for St. Louis.

That moved the Blues to 18-5-5 under Hitchcock. Their sole lead isn't going to last long. By the end of Sunday they will at least be in a tie with either the Blackhawks or Red Wings. But they are right there and will remain right there for the entire season.

The goaltending duo of Brian Elliott -- who had another shutout -- and Jaroslav Halak has rightfully received a lot of the attention for the Blues' success, but the guys in front of them deserve a lot. Just look at what the Avalanche were able to -- or unable to -- do: They only had 15 shots on goal for the entire game. That's why Elliott didn't even get one of the three Stars of the game. The most shots in one period that Colorado had? Seven. In the first they had just two.

I'll admit I'm happy for the fans of St. Louis. It's not a market that gets a lot of recognition as a big one like the cities in the Northeast or Canada, but it's been a strong market for hockey and remains that way. They haven't had a lot to cheer for in the past couple of years but they do now.

And of course the Western Conference has another team to be reckoned with.

Jerseylicious

The story out of Pittsburgh on Saturday was that the Penguins lost their fourth straight game, something they had not done in two years. On Sunday it was compounded by the announced injuries of James Neal (broken foot) and Jordan Staal (out 4-6 weeks).

But that's taking away from the success of the New Jersey Devils.

Their 3-1 win in Pittsburgh came a night after their 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers at home on Friday. They have points in seven of their last 10 games. They have also hurdled the Penguins in the Atlantic Division and are creeping up on the Flyers, four points behind Philadelphia.

A common thread in those two weekend wins? Ilya Kovalchuk had the game-winner. He's up to 15 goals on the season now, tied with David Clarkson for the team lead. He has the penchant for turnovers -- that's nothing new -- but is still as electric as almost any player in the league with the puck on his stick. What Peter DeBoer wouldn't give to continue to get that kind of production from Kovalchuk.

Danny's dance

What a day it was Saturday for Danny Briere. The Philadelphia Flyers veteran had a double rarity in the Flyers' 3-2 win over the Senators: He finished off a hat trick with a goal in the final seconds of overtime and dropped the gloves with Kyle Turris (!).

First, here's the bout from HockeyFights.com.

Not terrible for a couple of guys who don't normally go a round. For Briere it was only his third career fight.

But in the end it was his fifth career hat trick that was the biggest moment of the night. Apparently content to take the game to the shootout, the Senators seemed to give up once the clock moved under 10 seconds. It was up to Craig Anderson to keep them alive. He made the first stop on Briere from point-blank range but couldn't prevent the second from slipping in and winning the game with 5.3 seconds left.

Buffalo bull

They're getting pretty desperate up there in Buffalo where the Sabres just can't seem to do anything right.

It's a solid cast of characters. There's a reason why people thought this would be a contender in the East this season. Add in the ownership takeover of Terry Pegula, and there was a lot of noise coming out of Buffalo. Now, not so much. Really.

"Married couples fighting upstairs, you can hear that on the ice," Ville Leino joked to John Vogl of the Buffalo News.

That'll happen when you're not scoring much. Like they didn't score in the 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night in Buffalo.

Their lack of scoring is the biggest culprit for the following: Since Nov. 12 -- as in the day Ryan Miller met Milan Lucic -- the Sabres have the fourth-worst record in the NHL. The fans are beginning to beg GM Darcy Regier to do something. This isn't how it was supposed to go.

Quote of the weekend

"It got a little tight, so we're being careful with him. We took him and pulled him out." -- Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter on defenseman Mike Green and his hamstring.

The Caps just got Mike Green back from a hamstring-induced absence that stretched back to early November. Now it might cost him even more time now. If so, that will be the third time that Green has been out with injury. He also had an ankle issue cost him time earlier this season.

The Capitals saw their four-game winning streak come to an end on Saturday night in San Jose to the streaking Sharks. It was actually the first loss of the season for the Caps when Green played. They are now 9-1-0.

Looking beyond this season, Green will hit free agency this summer and here's one argument being laid out for why the Capitals shouldn't re-sign him. It will be worth a debate for GM George McPhee.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: January 8, 2012 1:23 pm
 

Pens injuries continue: Staal, Neal to miss time

By Brian Stubits

The Pittsburgh Penguins have faced plenty of injury adversity in the past two seasons. But this might take the cake.

The Penguins obviously are already down their best player in Sidney Crosby for an indefinite amount of time and have been minus Kris Letang, then they announced on Sunday that Jordan Staal is going to be out 4-6 weeks and James Neal has a broken foot with no timetable yet. That hurts, literally and figuratively.

Making it worse, Craig Adams might have suffered a knee injury in Sunday's practice. When it rains, it pours.

I think there are a few hands reaching for that panic button in Pittsburgh right about now. The Penguins have lost four games in a row, they are currently eighth place in the Eastern Conference and are going to be missing the majority of their play-makers. Now they need to invest in a plastic bubble to put Evgeni Malkin in.

As I said, this is nothing new for the Penguins. They still made the playoffs as a four seed last year when they didn't have Crosby, Malkin and Staal for good portions of the season. It was pretty amazing how well they overcame those injuries on the team. So clearly this isn't a crippling blow to their season. But it just made it a lot more interesting. Or scary if you're a Pens fan.

Unlike last year, the Penguins are actually going into this stretch in eighth place. They don't have the cushion they did last season. Plus, the Atlantic Division is considerably tougher this season, what with the Rangers stepping up their game and the New Jersey Devils playing so well. I think there's a little more competition in the East this year and it's going to ask a lot of them to keep their spot in the playoff mix through the second half of the season.

The Penguins aren't going to be buried as long as Marc-Andre Fleury is still in play. With the scorers dropping like flies, Flower will be counted on even more.

If the Penguins are able to make the playoffs again in a good position, Dan Bylsma might be up for the Jack Adams Award again this season. There are injuries then there are what the Penguins have gone through the last two seasons.

When they were depleted last year, GM Ray Shero went out and got James Neal from the Stars. He'll likely get on the phone again this week and try and get some help.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: December 29, 2011 8:31 pm
Edited on: December 29, 2011 10:53 pm
 

Jagr scores, salutes Pittsburgh crowd (Video)

By: Adam Gretz

You had to know this was coming.

After all of the anticipation leading up to Jaromir Jagr's first visit to Pittsburgh following his signing with the Philadelphia Flyers over the summer, and all of the boos and jeers he received from Penguins fans, you just had to know that he was going to find a way to score a goal at some point during the game. And that's exactly what he did mid-way through the second period, giving the Flyers a 2-1 lead.

Here's a look at the goal, which was a vintage Jagr play as he cut across the middle of the ice and unleashed a beautiful backhand shot that beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. And then he followed that up with his signature salute (and check out the guy in red shirt returning the favor).



"It was one of the better looking ones," said Jagr about his goal, before laughing and adding, "I'm glad it wasn't off my ass, or off my leg."

Before scoring that goal, his 12th of the season, Jagr had at least four quality scoring chances in the first period and even helped to save a goal at the other end of the ice when he lifted the stick of Penguins forward James Neal, preventing him from depositing the puck into an empty net.

Also at Eye On Hockey

Jagr leads Flyers to win in Pittsburgh
Jagr talks to return to Pittsburgh, Penguins fans

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: December 21, 2011 2:12 pm
Edited on: December 21, 2011 2:18 pm
 

The most dangerous player in hockey right now

malkinBy: Adam Gretz

PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin is back, and right now it looks as if the Pittsburgh Penguins are his team.

When Sidney Crosby returned to the lineup last month the discussion immediately focussed on whether or not he could win the NHL's scoring title, despite missing the first 20-plus games of the season. As it turns out, Malkin is the Penguins forward we should have been looking at all along.

Thanks to his three-assist performance during a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, which came after a five-point destruction of the Buffalo Sabres over the weekend, Malkin moved into a tie for the top spot in the NHL scoring race with 39 points, catching Toronto's Phil Kessel, despite missing six games of his own.

Right now there isn't a more dangerous offensive player in the league, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Penguins.

For the second year in a row the Pittsburgh roster has been crushed by injuries and on any given night has had some combination of Crosby, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang, among many others, sidelined due to various ailments and injuries. Even with all of that, the team has a continued to pile up wins and stay near the top of the conference standings and have the look of a top Stanley Cup contender. Head coach Dan Bylsma certainly deserves a lot of credit for that, as does the Penguins front office, led by general manager Ray Shero, for having the type of organizational depth that allows the team to handle so many injuries to so many key players.

But it also doesn't hurt to have a player like Malkin, one of the most talented and skilled players in the world, that is always capable of taking over a game. And that's exactly what he's been doing for the Penguins this year. For much of this season he's been playing on a line with James Neal and free agent acquisition Steve Sullivan. When the Penguins acquired Neal last season it was done so under the assumption that he would eventually be the goal-scoring winger the Penguins have long been searching for to put alongside Crosby. But with Crosby missing so much time due to injury, Neal has found a home on Malkin's line, and along with Sullivan, have formed a trio that has been Pittsburgh's best on a nightly basis.

"I thought his line in particular, I know Geno is the big guy on that line, but their line played very well in the first," said Bylsma after Tuesday's game. "They attacked in every chance they got over the boards at 5-on-5, and on the power play. They were putting pucks behind and playing in the offensive zone and on the attack."

A couple of years ago Malkin was one of the players consistently mentioned in the "best player in the world" discussion, along with Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin. He won the scoring title during the 2008-09 season and then followed it up with a Conn Smythe performance in the postseason as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.

But over the past two seasons his production dropped a bit, perhaps due to lingering injuries, and then he missed the last half of the 2010-11 campaign, as well as the playoffs, due to a knee injury that he suffered when Buffalo's Tyler Myers awkwardly fell on his leg during a game last January. Because Malkin has always played second chair in Pittsburgh to Crosby, the face of the franchise, his name has always been the one that's been brought up in absurd trade rumors and baseless speculation for a wide range of reasons (I've brought this up before, but just google "Evgeni Malkin Trade" and start reading), including but not always limited to salary cap concerns, the need to acquire a goal-scoring winger, and, well, pretty much anything that anybody could throw against the wall in the hopes that it would stick. It never did, and for good reason.

Even though Malkin is the "No. 2" center in Pittsburgh (it's probably more of a 1A and 1B deal) when the team is at 100 percent, he has always had a knack for elevating his game when Crosby is out of the lineup. He did it during the 2007-08 season when Crosby missed extended time due to an ankle injury that came after he fell into the boards, and he's doing it again this season. On a per-game average he's actually scoring at a higher rate right now than he was during the '08-09 season when he won his Art Ross Trophy.

 "Geno has been a force offensively," said Bylsma on Tuesday. "But he's also a guy we're counting on to play against other teams top lines right now, and he's been good at both ends of the rink. He's been powerful and making plays and driving. He's going to have probably 10 scoring chances again with how he's dominating and how he's playing."

Photo: Getty Images

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