A Progress Report: Penguins' record, play bears little, if any, resemblance to last season
Friday, November 24, 2006
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are many ways to measure the progress the Penguins have made in the past year.
You could do it with their 20-game record -- 10-7-3, after being 6-8-6 at the same point in 2005-06.
You could do it with the point total that record represents -- 23, an obvious upgrade on the 18 they had after 20 games in 2005-06.
You could do it by noting how they've pared their goals-allowed total from 83 to 63, or bumped up their goal output from 60 to 65.
Or you could ignore all the numbers and simply watch them play because, most of the time, that's all it takes to recognize how different things are.
"You can see there's a big improvement," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "Not only in the standings, but in the way we're playing. The system is there, the effort is there every night, pretty much. I guess that's why we are where we are."
Where they are as they close out the first quarter of the season -- technically, it will end midway through the second period of their game at 2:08 p.m. today on Long Island -- is in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
They are tied with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay for eighth place in the East, and will have to be there -- or higher -- when the season ends if they are to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
But it says something about these Penguins that when they talk about challenging for a spot in the playoffs, no one snickers.
Of course, no one did in late November last year, either. But that was mostly because no one even remotely rooted in reality would not have dared to suggest such a thing was possible.
This season, however, their 20-game record projects to 94 points; Tampa Bay claimed the final Eastern spot in 2005-06 with 92.
"There's no doubt we're happy [with the first quarter]," coach Michel Therrien said. "When we started the season, we said we wanted to be part of a group that was going to battle to make the playoffs. That was our goal, and we're right there."
Numerous factors have contributed to the Penguins' solid start. Some of the biggest include:
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has elevated his game significantly and is performing with a consistency missing in previous seasons. He has a 2.82 goals against average and .912 save percentage after finishing 2005-06 at 3.25 and .898.
The play of second-year center Sidney Crosby, who is poised to make a serious run at the NHL scoring championship, and rookie Evgeni Malkin, who has made a seamless transition to North American hockey. They form a 1-2 punch down the middle that eventually could rival the finest in hockey history.
A team-wide commitment to better defense. Fleury's performance is a huge factor, but so is the structure introduced by Therrien and the willingness of players to work as hard to prevent goals as they do to produce them.
"When we started the season, we knew that if we were going the same way we did last year, we were going to get killed," Therrien said.
Although they've avoided that, the Penguins do have some blemishes that could sabotage their season. Prominent on that list is:
The failure of their wingers to generate goals. First-line right winger Colby Armstrong, who doesn't have any, is the poster boy for this problem, but right wingers Mark Recchi and Michel Ouellet are the only non-centers to score as many as six. That's not enough, especially with set-up men like Crosby and Malkin.
Their penalty-killing, which is steadily sliding down the league rankings. It is the ninth-worst in the league, with a success rate of 81.4 percent, and is particularly ineffective on the road (72.6 percent). With so little margin for error, the Penguins can't afford to lose an undue number of one-goal games because of subpar penalty-killing. Being the most-penalized team in the East (18 minutes per game) doesn't help.
Modest depth. The profound impact Mark Eaton's dislocated wrist has had on their penalty-killing and overall defense underscores the shortage of solid defensemen in the organization, and if they had wingers in the minors who were good bets to score at this level, they'd be up by now.
Whether any of those will push the Penguins out of playoff contention remains to be seen. It hasn't happened yet, though, and that's unmistakable evidence of progress for players who endured so much defeat and disappointment last season.
"We're not last in the standings," Fleury said. "We're right there."
(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com