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.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin’s blast lifts Capitals in OT, Sheary speeds by Panthers

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Player of the night: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin has already reached double digits in goals scored in this new campaign. The Capitals’ star recorded his 10th goal of the season on Friday and it counted as the overtime winner against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Capitals trailed late in the third period, but T.J. Oshie scored the tying goal and Ovechkin won it on a power play less than two minutes into the extra period, as he deployed that famous one-timer slap shot from his off-wing. This time, Petr Mrazek was victimized by the wicked slapper.

Ovechkin is now only two goals behind the entire Montreal Canadiens team — in the same amount of games.

Highlight of the night:

What a weapon speed is in today’s National Hockey League. Conor Sheary illustrated that once again, as he saw a little bit of room down the left side and flew around Alex Petrovic before making a move to the backhand on James Reimer. That goal counted as the eventual winner, as the Penguins defeated the Panthers 4-3. Earlier in the third period, Sheary and Roberto Luongo came together near the Florida net, causing Luongo’s right hand to get caught against the post, injuring the Panthers’ netminder.

Factoid of the night:

It was a milestone night in Winnipeg for Blake Wheeler and coach Paul Maurice.

Scores:

Vancouver 4, Buffalo 2

San Jose 3, New Jersey 0

Washington 4, Detroit 3 (OT)

Pittsburgh 4, Florida 3

Winnipeg 4, Minnesota 3

Anaheim 6, Montreal 2

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Video: Price takes out his frustration, as the Habs were crushed again

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It’s gone from bad, to worse, to an absolute nightmare for the Montreal Canadiens.

A three-game trip through California is never fun for opposing teams, but this was misery for the Habs. They were outscored a combined 16-5 in three games against the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, with few, if any positives beyond the second period in a 6-2 loss in Anaheim on Friday.

Montreal hasn’t won since its season opener on Oct. 5, and is now on a seven-game losing skid, unable to generate much offensively with a league worst 10 goals scored through seven games before tonight, while giving up plenty of goals at the other end.

That is a recipe for disaster and even though it’s still early in the season, this has to be a major concern for coach Claude Julien and, in particular, general manager Marc Bergevin.

Read more: Is there a trade to be made between the Penguins and Canadiens?

Down by three after the first period, Montreal had 30 shots on goal during the middle frame and managed to trim Anaheim’s lead down to one heading into the third period. And then, just when it seemed like maybe they were on a path toward an inspirational comeback on the road, it all fell apart.

Three straight goals for Anaheim, with journeyman forward Derek Grant scoring the first two goals of his NHL career — in game No. 93.

As you can probably tell from the clip below, Carey Price was visibly irritated, as he whacked his goalie stick against the post after the sixth Anaheim goal.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Canucks defeat the Sabres, as the losing continues in Buffalo

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The Buffalo Sabres remain stuck on just a single win to begin the season. Jack Eichel is sick of losing, but the losing continues.

Returning home from a four-game road trip out west, the Sabres had an opportunity ahead of them to get back into the win column. The Vancouver Canucks, hardly a powerhouse in any way, were in town. They had played — and lost — the night before in Boston. And then the Sabres went out and were thoroughly outplayed in a 4-2 loss that, one could argue, flattered the hosts.

They weren’t able to take advantage of an early lead after Justin Bailey was allowed access to the net off the rush. They couldn’t hold the lead after Eichel dangled Ben Hutton and then scored on a shot Jacob Markstrom should’ve stopped. They gave up yet another short-handed goal, putting that number at six for the Sabres just eight games into the season.

Instead, Buffalo spent most of the night in its own end, giving up 37 shots through two periods. Hard to pin this, in any way, on goalie Chad Johnson.

“First of all, I thought we didn’t defend well and close quick enough in our defensive zone. We were a little bit slow there tonight. We need to be more aggressive and on the puck,” said head coach Phil Housley after the game.

While the Sabres were badly outplayed, one of the deciding moments in this game was a controversial video review in the second period. Vancouver took the lead on a goal from Daniel Sedin, although Housley challenged for a potential offside after it looked like Jake Virtanen didn’t have control of the puck as he entered the zone.

The linesmen looked over the play for a lengthy review before officials came to the conclusion that Virtanen did have control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line. The goal stood and the Canucks controlled the remainder of the game.

“I disagree with the call, totally,” said Housley. “In my opinion, he knocks the puck out of the air. He never has possession.

“But I call that 10 out of 10 times offside and I would continue to challenge that again.”

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Roberto Luongo leaves game with apparent injury, as Panthers fall to Penguins

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The Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday. Making matters worse was the fact their goalie Roberto Luongo left the game in the third period with an apparent hand injury.

The injury occurred after a collision in the crease with Penguins forward Conor Sheary.

Luongo immediately went down to the ice in pain. A replay from above the net showed Luongo’s right hand getting caught in an awkward position against the post after coming into contact with Sheary as he cut through in front of the crease in pursuit of the puck.

The injury forced James Reimer off the bench and into the game with the Panthers trailing by a goal. MacKenzie Weegar tied the game for Florida before Sheary scored the eventual winner about eight minutes later, on a night when the Penguins fired 48 shots on the two Panthers goalies.

Luongo gave up three goals on 36 shots before leaving the game. The Panthers now head out on the road. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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