Evgeni Malkin

2011-2012 season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

2010-2011 record: 49-25-8, 106 points; 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Tampa Bay 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

After a season that saw too little from their biggest stars and a collapse in the first round of the playoffs, the Penguins are back with a vengeance. They showed they can win without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and while Malkin is back and Crosby is getting closer to returning, they’ll be even more dangerous than ever.

Offense

We hate to judge guys by how they did in the preseason, but if how Malkin played in the preseason is an indication of how he’s going to play this season, then the Penguins really don’t need to rush Crosby back. Malkin looks healthy for the first time in over a year and that makes him one of the most dangerous guys on the ice. If you throw Crosby in there, all the offense the Pens lacked late last season is back in force. Adding Steve Sullivan will help out a bit. They’ll need more from James Neal though.

What the Penguins get from guys like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis is fine as long as Malkin is there to carry the load to start. Getting another 20-plus goal season from Tyler Kennedy would help and another solid season from Mark Letestu would go a long way to achieving balance in Pittsburgh. Oh, yeah, Jordan Staal is still pretty good at hockey, too, and if he gets to run with Malkin when Crosby returns, that makes the Pens all the more dangerous.

Defense

The defense is still as solid as ever and learning how to defend staunchly when Malkin and Crosby were out helped make them very difficult to beat. Kris Letang is a full-fledged offensive stud while Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen help bring some offense to the blue line as well. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are defensive studs. Ben Lovejoy should end up the sixth starter. This year’s first-round pick Joe Morrow gave the Penguins a lot to think about in training camp. He could be worth getting a nine game regular-season look before the Pens decide whether or not to send him back to juniors.

Goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury finally silenced the rest of his critics with how strong he played last season. While he had a bumpy first month, he settled in and turned out to be one of the best in the league. He was poised and strong and helped keep the Pens rolling along without their star forwards. Brent Johnson was again a more-than solid backup and proved to be the most effective enforcer on the roster. Just ask Rick DiPietro.

Coach

Dan Bylsma is one of the best in the business and took home the Jack Adams Award as top coach. The way he helped keep the Penguins calm, cool, and collected in the face of disaster and through a myriad of injuries last seaosn was nothing short of miraculous. Finishing tied for first in the Atlantic and nearly overtaking the Flyers was a work of art. We’re pretty sure that if there’s a zombie apocalypse we want Bylsma to be the guy to lead us through the undead masses.

Breakout candidate

If Morrow sticks around he’s the pick here. We’re going to hedge our bets on that and say that a healthy, full season from Mark Letestu will be just the thing the Penguins need to get supportive offense from their other lines. In 64 games last season, the center had 14 goals and 13 assists. Cracking 20 goals should be his goal this season.

Best-case scenario

Malkin has an MVP-worthy season and shows why he is, indeed, one of the best players in the league all over again. Crosby comes back and has no further concussion issues and resumes the dominating play he had last season while Staal continues to be his solid self and Letang continues his huge offensive rise. Matt Cooke gets his act together and only gets press for being a solid defensive forward and penalty-killing maven. The Pens’ defense plays solid and nasty while Fleury shows his play from last season is how he’s going to be the rest of the way in leading the Penguins into the Stanley Cup finals.

Reality

The Penguins were already going to be a dangerously good team as it was. Bylsma’s expertise leading a team that plays non-stop aggressive hockey each game makes them a good team. Getting Malkin back as a Russian-powered super machine will make them great. If/when Crosby returns and has no follow-up issues with his health, this team is a legitimate Stanley Cup favorite. Getting that massive amount of offense back in the lineup after learning how to become defensively stingy makes them one of the best in the East, if not the NHL.

By winning fifth straight, Caps extend Wild’s slump to seven losses

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alex Ovechkin scored three times in the second period for his 14th career hat trick, and the Washington Capitals beat the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Thursday night.

Ovechkin, who leads the league with 34 goals, has 13 in his past 13 games. Nicklas Backstrom had three assists and Jason Chimera added an empty-netter for Washington, which improved to a league-best 20-5-2 on the road.

Braden Holtby made 33 saves for the Capitals, who won their fifth consecutive game and became the first team to reach 40 victories this season.

Charlie Coyle, Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund scored for the Wild, but Minnesota lost for the 12th time in its past 13 games (1-10-2). Devan Dubnyk made 29 saves for the Wild, who have lost seven in a row at home (0-4-3).

Ovechkin’s third goal, which deflected off both the post and the back of Dubnyk into the net, was upheld following a coach’s challenge. Wild coach Mike Yeo challenged that the puck had left the zone for offsides, but the call stood after a review showed that Backstrom stopped the puck before it crossed the blue line.

The goal gave Ovechkin his first hat trick since he scored four goals against Tampa Bay on Dec. 10, 2013.

It wasn’t the only fortunate bounce for Ovechkin on the night, and the five-time 50-goal scorer capitalized on each opportunity.

A shot from T.J. Oshie deflected off of Minnesota forward Zach Parise across the ice right to Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle and Ovechkin quickly snapped off a shot to beat Dubnyk, who couldn’t get across the crease to get into position. Three minutes later, Ovechkin scored on the power play when a point shot bounced off the end boards right to Ovechkin in front of the net.

The tally provided some relief for the Capitals’ surprisingly ineffective power play. Washington had one power play in its previous six games, an empty-netter for the only goal in its previous 20 power-play chances. The Capitals were 1 of 5 on the power play on Thursday.

Coyle scored for the fifth time in eight games in the second, but second periods have doomed the Wild during their slump. Minnesota has been outscored 13-3 in the period in five straight losses.

Suter scored his sixth goal of the season on the power play in the third as Minnesota went 1 of 5 with the man advantage.

NOTES: Washington C Evgeny Kuznetsov left in the third period after he was hit in the face by the stick of Mikael Granlund off a faceoff. … Backstrom has 20 points in his last 17 games. … Minnesota D Jared Spurgeon missed his second straight game with an unspecified deep bruise. Spurgeon has returned to practice, but was held out again. … Holtby is 27-1-3 in his last 31 games with two shutouts, a 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

Watch the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp tribute video

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Over the years, the Chicago Blackhawks have been forced to let some important players leave to keep their core together, which ultimately meant parting ways with Patrick Sharp.

The talented winger now wears a Dallas Stars jersey, so Blackhawks fans must face the reality of watching Sharp ply his trade for a formidable Central Division opponent.

Even if that might feel awkward, Blackhawks fans gave Sharp (and Johnny Oduya) a warm reception in Chicago on Thursday.

CSNChicago.com provides video of that ovation, which you can see in the clip above.

The Stars currently lead the Blackhawks 4-2, thanks in large part to Patrick … Eaves.

Ovechkin’s 14th career hat trick helps him make more history

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Death, taxes and Alex Ovechkin winning the Maurice Richard Trophy.

OK, the third thing on that list isn’t technically inevitable. It just feels that way lately in the NHL.

It’s unclear if the Washington Capitals can hold on against the Minnesota Wild, but we know for certain that Ovechkin already has a hat trick, the 14th of his high-scoring career.

(He also passed Jean Beliveau for 39th all-time in goals with his 509th, as NHL.com notes.)

This propels Ovechkin to the goals lead as of this writing, as he already has 34. As impressive as Patrick Kane has been, No. 8 is heating up, and may just edge No. 88 if Ovechkin can remain healthy.

One has to feel a little sympathy for the struggling Wild. They played well but lost against the Dallas Stars earlier this week and now must deal with Ovechkin and the just-as-hot Capitals.

Update: Minnesota managed three goals, but it wasn’t enough, as Washington got the edge 4-3.

Bylsma believes league will look at Gudas’ hit on Catenacci

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Rugged Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas may get in trouble with the league once again.

At least, it will be that way if Buffalo Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma has his way regarding Gudas’ five-minute charging major hit on Daniel Catenacci.

“I think there’s no question it’s head hit,” Bylsma said, according to the Buffalo News’ John Vogl. ” … I know the league will look at that hit and deal with it.”

As far as the injury portion of possible suspension considerations go:

Marcus Foligno‘s analysis of Gudas was … well just check it out.

The Flyers ended up winning 5-1. Gudas was a busy man overall, racking up 17 penalty minutes.