By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributing writer
Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family, friends, and loved ones and give thanks for all we have. Here are five reasons the Penguins should be thankful for where they are in the current season. Additionally, with the Christmas season approaching, here are five gifts the Penguins’ could use to sustain success.
Five Reasons the Penguins should be thankful
Sidney Crosby — Crosby has sparked his team’s recent 6-0-1 stretch and is a primary reason why the Penguins are four points out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference heading into Friday’s game against Ottawa. Crosby boasts a NHL-best 10-game point-scoring streak and has scored 21 points during the stretch. He trails only Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos in the NHL scoring race.
Penalty Killing — Everybody is well-aware of the Penguins’ current power-play woes, but the penalty killing has generally been outstanding this season. While it’s true the struggling power play must show tremendous improvement for this team to be a force in the spring, the penalty killing has been among the best, ranking fourth in the league before Friday‘s action. Pittsburgh has successfully killed of 61 of its last 65 penalties and has gone 10 of the last 12 games without surrendering a power play goal, including six straight.
Brent Johnson — Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been spectacular recently, but backup Brent Johnson’s stellar play to start the season allowed Fleury to work through an early-season slump. Johnson went 6-1-1 with a 1.62-goals-against average and a .943 save percentage to start the season. Johnson’s last game was a 7-4 loss to Boston that saw the Penguins blow a two-goal lead, allowing five goals in the third period.
The Defense — Defensemen Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Alex Goligoski have helped spark the Penguins’ offense. The blueline trio ranks among the top seven in team scoring with Letang leading the way in third with 19 points. They have more points than the likes of forwards Pascal Dupuis, Mark Letestu, Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy, and Aaron Asham among others.
Road games — The Consol Energy Center hasn’t been too kind to the Penguins as it took three tries for the team to record its first win in the new building. Though team has currently gone 3-0-1 at the Consol Energy Center during a recent hot stretch, stellar play on the road kept the Penguins near the top of the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh, which set a franchise record for wins on the road last year, is 7-3-1 away from the Consol Energy Center, and the team’s 15 road points are tied for the most in the league.
Five gifts the Penguins could use this Christmas
Evgeni Malkin — The Penguins’ other superstar forward is making $8.7 million and only has seven goals. Three of them came in a win against Atlanta. Malkin’s play has improved recently, but the Penguins’ will need more offensively from their dynamic forward, who owns an Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Defense — The defense has been excellent offensively with Letang, Martin, and Goligoski ranking in the top seven in team scoring, while free-agent pickup Zbynek Michalek and veteran Brooks Orpik are recently developing into a formidable shut down pair. Still, early in the season the Penguins developed a penchant for blowing leads with games against Boston, the New York Rangers, Montreal, and Tampa Bay standing out. They can’t afford to fall back into this bad habit as the season progresses.
Wingers — Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, Letestu, and Dupuis have put together hot streaks during the season, but inconsistencies with this group, and the rest of the forwards not named Crosby, could hurt the team in the spring. They will need more secondary scoring because Crosby and Malkin can’t do it all. It’s a good sign, but also a concern when three defensemen are among the top seven scorers.
Marc-Andre Fleury – Fleury is part of the reason why the Penguins have gone 6-0-1 in their last seven and vaulted to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. His goals-against average is less than 2.00 during that stretch, while his save percentage is close to a .930. Fleury needs to continue this stellar stretch and avoid another bout with inconsistent play similar to the slump suffered earlier in the season.
Jordan Staal — Staal missed 12 games after an infection in his surgically repaired foot – an injury suffered during last year’s playoffs – didn’t heal properly. Just as he was about to return to the lineup, misfortune struck the Penguins’ forward again as Staal suffered a broken hand when he was inadvertently struck by a puck in a freak accident. He has missed 11 more games and is expected to return around Christmas. The 22-year-old is already considered one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL and should provide an immediate boost upon his return.