Published on February 19th, 2013 | by James Conley0
Penguins Weekend Cap: Crosby Hot, Malkin Searching as Wins Pile Up
Evgeni Malkin can’t score goals. Paul Martin can do no wrong. The Penguins are exactly where we thought they’d be after 16 games.
Pittsburgh has been streaky at times, but the streak is trending up since escaping New Jersey. The Pens have split win streaks of five and three games with only the two-game Devils hiccup. Sunday, the Penguins overcame a third-period deficit and blown lead at the hands of the Sabres to climb back atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Martin scored the game winner in Buffalo, with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis adding 3 points apiece.
Pittsburgh is 8-2-0 in its last 10 games after starting the season at 3-3-0 and the team’s top line is smoldering, accounting for seven points (3-4) and 14 shots in Sunday’s match in Buffalo. Only Anaheim (25 points) and Chicago (27 points) have better records than the Penguins.
The Penguins have played one-third of their schedule. In that spirit, some thoughts on the Pens, presented with one-third the thoughtfulness of a real article.
Evgeni Malkin needs a winger. This charge should come as a surprise to no one. Malkin’s most productive seasons have been ones in which his linemates were genuine NHL top-six talents who remained on his wing for the balance of a full season. In 2013, the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis unit is the only one to take the ice with any regularity. The Cooke-Sutter-Kennedy line is the second-most used line on the team despite Cooke having been bounced to some second-line duties. Below those lines, Malkin and Neal have seen four or five line combinations will relatively little ice time.
No time to gel. No consistency.
Kunitz-Malkin-Neal was a constant last season after Kunitz took Steve Sullivan’s place on Malkin’s line, and the line caught fire and remained productive throughout 2012. Kunitz’s first-line talent had as much to do with their success as the talentlessness of Tangradi, Kennedy and Boychuk have had to do with Malkin’s regression this year, but the lack of consistency is part of the problem, too.
In years in which Malkin had serviceable, consistent linemates, he has been an Art Ross contender (or winner). In years without, his production dips monstrously. Part of the problem may be finding players who can actually skate with the improv-happy Malkin, but at some point it’s an issue that will have to be addressed.
Malkin and Neal gave the Penguins nearly 200 points last year, paired with a real NHL winger in Kunitz. They haven’t lost the ability to create offense. Neal is second in the NHL with 11 goals and leads the league in power play goals again with 7. Malkin’s is top-five in assists and top-15 in points despite a two-points-in-five-games swoon.
If catering to their need for a specifically-skilled winger means spending picks/prospects/cap space to acquire one, it’s not really catering. It’s common sense.
What on Earth is Sidney Crosby made of? From January 2011-January 2013, Crosby played 28 games. That’s 28 games in some 750 days.
A two-year shelving that did almost nothing to slow hockey’s best offensive talent.
In a season split by recurring head/neck injuries, Crosby still managed to pot 37 points in 22 regular season games a year ago, a 1.68 point-per-game pace. That was slightly better than his 1.61 PPG clip in the first half of 2010-11. Through 16 games in 2013, Crosby has 7 goals and 17 assists for 24 points, a 1.50 points-per-game pace.
And, conceivably, Crosby’s production should increase.
After a relatively slow start that saw him score 7 points in seven January games, Crosby’s February production has been off the charts. He’s now got 4 goals and 13 assists in nine February games, and scored 3 points in five of those nine contests. His February scoring average is a smoldering 1.9 points per game. Seven of those 17 February points have come on the power play, but his regular line with Kunitz and Dupuis has been money at even strength, accounting for 7 points in Sunday’s win over Buffalo alone.
As of Tuesday, Crosby has a share of the league-lead with 17 assists and trails Thomas Vanek by one point in the Art Ross Race. His first seven games look now to have been a rust-removal exercise. Pittsburgh’s captain is flying.
The 2012 playoffs were a disaster. Still, Marc-Andre Fleury is the starter. Tomas Vokoun was brought in during the offseason, to much applause and some concern. His career numbers and two-year deal were enough to raise questions about the Penguins’ goaltending situation, if Fleury’s postseason meltdown hadn’t already been enough.
Vokoun has been the cure for what ailed Pittsburgh’s goaltending situation last year, posting a 3-2-0 mark in five starts (2.27 / .918). Shero’s biggest acquisition last summer, Vokoun has been a reliable second option, and he and Fleury are in the conversation for best goaltending tandem in the NHL.
However, Fleury’s recent play has so far made talk of a goalie controversy a non-starter.
Fleury has a share of the league lead with 8 wins and an 8-3-0 record overall. His 2.34 GAA and .914 SV% are in the middle of the NHL pack, but are a vast improvement from his early splits and are nearing his career averages. In all, Fleury has won six of his last seven starts and three straight.
Through 16 games:
8-3-0 in 11 GP | 2.34 GAA | .914 SV% | 291 SA | 25 GA
3-2-0 in 6 GP | 2.27 GAA | .918 SV% | 147 SA | 12 GA
Those are staggeringly similar numbers, and the Penguins goaltender on any given night will seemingly go as his defense goes before him.
The Penguins entered the season deliberately planning on giving Vokoun 20 or so starts in the 48-game season. He’ll very likely hit that mark, but there’s no question Fleury is the starter.