The NHL schedule's quarter pole is supposed to provide the first real read on where teams are, but with this season's marking point approaching, the Pittsburgh Penguins are doing a pretty good job of blurring the pages.
It's not easy, either. Especially since the Penguins are playing their best hockey of the season. And then there's the little matter of this being a team less than 18 months removed from skating around with the Stanley Cup and having Sidney Crosby on pace for their best season of his career.
|Scoring at least one point in his last nine games, Crosby continues to be a dominant force. (US Presswire)|
"I like that we have a good idea of how we're going to play and how we're going to win games," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think we've embraced that coming up to the quarter."
Which makes it seem like the Penguins are in a pretty good place right now, right? They even managed to extend their current streak to 6-1-1 in Florida, where their dads joined them and got to spend an extra day on the team's annual family road trip.
But Pittsburgh is also a team with lingering shadows from losing to a heavy underdog early in last spring's playoffs, shadows that still raise some questions about the Penguins. And the Penguins didn't help themselves by starting the season slowly and developing a troubling penchant for blowing third-period leads.
For that matter, Pittsburgh isn't playing particularly well at home either, losing the first three games in their brand new Consol Energy Center. And when you throw in the fact Pittsburgh still is missing its best shutdown forward, Jordan Staal, and has a franchise goalie whose work this season would charitably be termed uneven at best, it's not hard to find question marks.
"I don't know, overall I guess you could say the first quarter was average," Crosby conceded. "But I think the last few games we've found our game a lot more and that's what matters right now,
"Obviously we didn't play our best hockey at the start and we want to make sure that's behind us because the league is really so tight and competitive that you can't afford not to give yourself a chance. But when you have injuries and new faces, sometimes you're slow out of the gate. You just never want to take too long to adjust or improve and I think we're getting there now. And Flower is playing great."
‘Flower' is goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, he of the miserable start that forced Bylsma to turn to journeyman backup Brent Johnson a week into the season. Johnson responded brilliantly mind you, keeping the Penguins competitive by allowing a goal per game less than Fleury and creating something of a goalie controversy in the process.
But the stopgap measure ended when team captain Crosby spoke out in support of the Stanley Cup-winning netminder a couple of weeks ago. After that, Fleury won five starts and lost a sixth in overtime. And while he has been much sharper, the Penguins have been playing a much more effective game in front of him and pouring on the offense.
"I think that's natural that it takes time," defenseman Kris Letang said. "You have lots of new guys here trying to get used to a new system."
True, but of all the changes, the one that has been felt the most was on the blue line where veteran catalyst Sergei Gonchar left as a free agent. He was replaced by Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Both newcomers are skilled players, but they bring more to the defensive side of the equation than their predecessor did. And the impact on Pittsburgh's offense has been notable, particularly with the man advantage.
Pittsburgh's power play has been ranked near the bottom of the league all season, a remarkable fact considering Crosby and Malkin are on the lead unit. The special team got on the board last weekend against Carolina and showed real signs of life against the Panthers by converting its first two chances against one of the league's best penalty killing units.
Crosby was the focal point on both, winning a key draw to set up the first goal and making a great move with Malkin's pass to score the second.
In the meantime, Pittsburgh's penalty killers remain a bright spot stopping the past 22 power plays they've faced including a crucial one to Tyler Kennedy with less than five minutes remaining against the Panthers.
"We're starting to show what we can do and on a consistent basis," Letang said. "The most important thing is to keep improving. We're always a work in progress."