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.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for the Bruins to move on from Tuukka Rask?

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Tuukka Rask has shown that he can be one of the top goalies in the NHL, but CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty thinks that his inability to deliver in big games is becoming a serious problem. Haggerty even suggests that the Bruins should consider shipping him out of town this summer. It’s an interesting thought. (CSN New England)

–Nolan Patrick is expected to go first overall in next June’s entry draft, but his draft year has been anything but ordinary. He missed the first 34 games of the season with an undisclosed injury, which must be pretty frustrating. But Patrick has gone through a similar situation before. When he was a young teenager, Patrick broke his collarbone twice. He was able to shake the injuries off and turn himself into a top prospect. (Sportsnet)

–Take a look at the top seven plays of the week in and around the NHL. If you’re fed up of seeing Sidney Crosby score ridiculous goals, do not watch this video. (NBC Sports)

–The Flyers got six goals from six different players in their win over the Penguins last night. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page. Philly is now six points back of Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

–Sabres forward Brian Gionta will be playing in his 1000th NHL game tonight. As you’d imagine, the 5-foot-7 forward didn’t have an easy path to the big show, but he was still able to carve out a great career for himself. “To be out there and part of his 1,000th game, it’s a proud moment for me,” teammate Josh Gorges said. “I know it’s a proud moment for him. We’ve talked about it before, and it’s an amazing accomplishment. … We’re all looking forward to it.” (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

–Did you really think that changing the goalies’ pants was going to result in more goals scored? Well, let’s just say it hasn’t worked out that way. Before the change, teams were scoring 2.73 goals-per-game. Since the change, that number is slightly down at 2.70. (The Score)

–Jets super fan Kiera Neal was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one, but Neal, now 10, is doing well and is cancer free. Her wish was to meet the Winnipeg Jets and her favorite player Dustin Byfuglien, and the people at Hometown Hockey made it happen:

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers:

Penguins lose to Flyers and lose another key player to injury

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PITTSBURGH — Even with a ridiculously long injured list that would be the foundation of a pretty good hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins still found a way to go 8-1-3 in their previous 12 games entering Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The injuries finally seemed to start catching up to them on Sunday in a 6-2 loss, extending their current losing streak to three games, matching their season long.

While the loss certainly impacts their pursuit of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division (they remain three points back of the Washington Capitals), and even their quest for home ice advantage in the first round, it is still not the worst thing to come out of Sunday’s game.

The worst thing for them would be the fact the Penguins lost yet another key player to an injury when forward Conor Sheary had to leave the game mid-way through the first period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game that Sheary is dealing with a lower body injury and that right now he is considered to be day-to-day. It was initially believed that Sheary was injured blocking a shot, but Sullivan insisted that was not the case and that it happened in the offensive zone at some point in the first period.

With Jake Guentzel still sidelined due a concussion he suffered in a recent game against the Buffalo Sabres, that means two-thirds of the team’s recently assembled top line (Sidney Crosby-Sheary-Guentzel) is now sidelined due to injury. Sheary’s injury is especially concerning given how good he has been on Crosby’s wing dating back to the 2016 playoffs. Entering play on Sunday Sheary was averaging nearly a point per game (50 points in 54 games) with almost all of that production coming at even-strength.

They had yet another scare in the third period on Sunday when defenseman Brian Dumoulin had to briefly leave the game and head to the locker room after he was elbowed in the side of the head by Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

On Sunday, all of the injuries finally seemed to be too much with the Flyers pretty much dominating the game over the final two periods.

The Flyers received goals from six different players (Jordan Weal, Valtteri Filppula, Dale Weise, Jakob Voracek, Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere) in the win and outshot the Penguins by a 24-15 margin over the final 40 minutes.

“That wasn’t a good effort and at this point of the season we can’t afford to have those,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen after the game. “I don’t think that was a typical effort for us. I don’t think we had a lot of life, to be honest.”

Even more than winning games the rest of the way the biggest concern for the Penguins has to be getting their list of injured players healthy and finding a way to avoid adding to it, something that has proven to be difficult in recent weeks.

At this point, whether they win the Metropolitan Division or not, they know their path through the Eastern Conference playoffs is very likely going to have to go through both Washington and Columbus, and they are going to need their full complement of players to do it.

One of the biggest factors in winning a Stanley Cup is having all of your key players in the lineup come playoff time.

A year ago the Penguins did.

Right now they are not even close to having that.